in Houston, Texas
Houston Community College may have illegally withheld campaign finance information: Experts
Thursday, Sep 01, 2011, 09:15AM CST
By Mike Cronin
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Houston Community College officials haven't made it easy to obtain campaign finance information on candidates running for its board.

And questions exist whether HCC officials have illegally withheld some campaign finance information.

Local blogger Charles Kuffner detailed the byzantine process HCC officials required him to go through earlier this month.


But even when Jessica L. Saldivar, an HCC assistant general counsel, finally provided the documents last week, the college still withheld significant information.

First, Saldivar blacked out the home addresses of the candidates, who comprise nine incumbents and one challenger.

Next, Saldivar redacted the same information for all donors who contributed money to the candidates’ campaigns.

The financial forms cover the reporting period from Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year.

Public information experts in Houston and Austin agree that Texas law allows HCC officials to redact home addresses of political contributors.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” said Tom Gregor, a Houston lawyer who provides legal advice for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in Austin. “But the reasoning behind it is that the state doesn’t want to lose out on private donors who might fear that their personal information would be disclosed.”

But withholding candidate home addresses is a different matter.

A public entity such as HCC may redact home addresses of its elected officials and employees only if those officials or employees requested that in writing within 14 days of taking office, Gregor said.

Home addresses for candidates for public office are important, among other reasons, to ensure they live at a residence that qualifies them to run.

Kuffner said Saldivar offered no explanation of the redactions. She also did not offer any documents from the current nine board members that showed they requested their home addresses be withheld, Kuffner said.

“It sounds like they redacted everybody without putting too much thought into it,” said Joel White, an Austin-based lawyer who also provides legal advice for the FOI Foundation of Texas.

Elected public officials and public employees also cannot choose to withhold their home addresses after a public records request for that information, is submitted, White said.

In HCC’s case, “we don't know if they made that election or not," White said.

Texas Watchdog asked Saldivar whether HCC’s board members requested that their home addresses be redacted from the public record.
 
Saldivar replied in an e-mail that “the Texas Public Information Act does ‘not require a governmental body (HCC) to create new information, to do legal research or to answer questions.’”

Texas Watchdog submitted a public records request to HCC on Tuesday and asked for the same campaign finance reports Kuffner requested.

Texas Watchdog also asked for documentation that shows the board members requested their home addresses be redacted.

Of the candidates whose campaign financial information was released to Kuffner, Carroll Robinson is the only non-incumbent. He’s challenging incumbent Michael Williams in HCC District IV. (Also in that race is former Houston City Councilman Jew Don Boney.)

Robinson’s home address also is redacted in his campaign finance form, even though his is the only one that cannot be, according to Gregor's interpretation of the law -- because Robinson is not yet an HCC board member, nor is he an HCC employee. Robinson is an an associate professor at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin.

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