in Houston, Texas
State Bar of Texas sues Attorney General Greg Abbott over records in investigation into misused funds
Monday, Jul 16, 2012, 09:53AM CST
By Steve Miller
Lady Justice

The State Bar of Texas is suing the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott over an open records decision earlier this month that gives a legal trade magazine access to records detailing an internal investigation by the state bar.

A reporter from Texas Lawyer magazine in April requested the records from the state bar, which is an administrative arm of the state’s judicial department, with regard to fiscal misappropriation of funds by a bar employee who is also a deputy clerk for the Texas Supreme Court.

The bar appealed the request, and the AG’s office ruled in favor of the reporter, telling the state bar to hand over most of what was requested with the exception of some information that was asked to be withheld by the Austin Police Department as it is part of an ongoing investigation.

In its suit against the AG’s office, the bar argues that while one provision of the state’s open records law permits the withholding of a completed audit or investigation of misappropriated funds under section 552.108 by a law enforcement agency, “it makes no sense” to permit the release of information just because it is related to the expenditure of public or other funds by a government body, “particularly when the investigation is not yet complete.”

It also argues that the AG’s ruling claimed that to be withheld, information must fall under the dictates of a mandatory exception to the open records law rather than discretionary. “There are, however, no distinctions drawn with respect to [open records law] exceptions,” the bar’s petition states.

It is rare for the AG’s office to permit the release of information relating to an open investigation. But the AG’s letter ruling is based heavily on legitimate public interest.

The state bar last year sued Abbott over a different ruling that granted access to records to a lawyer accountability group.

In that case, the ruling granted access to a number of records dealing with lawyer sanctions. The bar, in its legal action, claimed the AG’s office also made public “sensitive State Bar personnel memorandums.”

The state bar and Abbott also tangled in a 2007 case before the state Supreme Court that centered on the public nature of the home address and phone number and date of birth of members of the state bar. Abbott ruled that they were subject to disclosure. An appellate court ruled the information is not subject to open records requests.

The Austin attorney Jennifer Riggs of Riggs, Aleshire & Ray, represents the state bar in all three cases.

Riggs worked in the AG’s office from 1984 to 1992, and served for two years as chief of the office’s Open Government Section.

One of her law partners is Bill Aleshire, an oft-cited advocate of transparency and a hotline volunteer for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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'Lady Justice' photo by flickr user Scott*, used via a Creative Commons license.

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