Personnel records - like those of 4 fired Denton County prosecutors - key to keeping eye on government

files

When four prosecutors from the Denton County District Attorney’s office were fired in June, the Denton Record-Chronicle filed an open records request for their personnel files.

On the 10th day after it received the July 2 request, Denton County, in accordance with the law, told the newspaper that it would ask for a ruling from the AG’s office.

But after the newspaper ran a story July 7 on the terminations, without the information from the files, the county withdrew its request for a ruling from the state. On July 24, it provided the records to the newspaper, which recounts the saga here.

Did the county stall as a tactic to obscure the story?

“The attorney general’s opinion was sought on the 10th day after the request, which is the deadline day,” notes a DRC piece dated Saturday. “The request was withdrawn July 24, the deadline day for filing a brief defending the arguments to withhold the files with the attorney general’s office. That gave the story the longest possible time to cool. But (the DA’s spokesperson Jamie Beck) said that was not the intention of her office.

“I can assure you that there was no deliberate attempt to use the open-records laws to circumvent releasing the records in a timely way,” she said.

Personnel records are public records, as has been decided numerous times by the state Attorney General’s office, with restrictions. These records are key to keeping the public informed as to just how the employees it pays are hired and fired, as well as just who these people are. Most people hired by a publicly-funded entity are informed that some of their information is public.

The Bandera County Courier used personnel records to shed light on a tangled mess leading up to the termination of a former sheriff’s deputy, Mario Hernandez.

The Courier has been crusading for months to obtain the details of a settlement made between the county and Hernandez.

It has apparently given up finding out the details -- the details of a legal settlement are well-protected in most states, even when they involve public employees.

Big stories have been broken via open records requests for personnel information; witness the case of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which handed over a Ford pickup truck and thousands of dollars to a couple of canned employees. The story was launched initially by a couple of tips, then this paragraph in an open records request:

All records, letters, correspondence and other communication related to the resignation or termination of Reggie Warren and Bill Knarr. This would include memos, emails, letters of resignation or other orders to Knarr and Warren regarding the end of their employment from TWIA.

The story led to a legislative investigation and the state takeover of the agency.

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

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