Attorney general to rule on Calhoun County records request

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Nov. 2, 2013 at 6:02 a.m.
Updated Nov. 3, 2013 at 5:03 a.m.

The Texas attorney general's office is expected to rule on an open records complaint the Victoria Advocate filed against Calhoun County this week.

The Advocate filed the complaint July 26 because Calhoun County refused to release a copy of a federal employment case settlement agreement.

Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, confirmed Assistant Attorney General Karen Hattaway will issue a ruling on the matter on or before Friday.

The lawsuit in question involved former county employee Amanda Guillen and her boss, Precinct 2 Commissioner Vern Lyssy.

Guillen claimed Lyssy fired her in 2010 after she discovered and complained about a camera that was set up in an office they shared.

She thought Lyssy filmed her undressing, but those recordings were never found.

The parties settled in June.

Calhoun County Criminal Assistant District Attorney Shannon Salyer maintained Nov. 1 that the settlement agreement is not a public document.

"The document is not in our possession," Salyer said Friday about how the county's former insurance carrier, Hiscox, handled the transaction.

The county now gets its insurance through the Texas Association of Counties, according to earlier reports.

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas weighed in and sent a letter on behalf of the Victoria Advocate to the attorney general's office.

Joe Larsen, who is chairman of the organization's opinions committee, wrote the letter in October.

He said the county's arguments against releasing it "appear to consist largely of a game of hide the ball."

"It is a difficult argument to make that one does not have access to information when a copy of that information has been submitted along with a request for ruling," Larsen wrote of how Calhoun County Criminal District Attorney Dan Heard requested and received a redacted copy of the settlement agreement from the insurance carrier.

"There can be little doubt that Hiscox would release an unredacted copy as well, if asked," Larsen wrote.

Further, he argued it is "black letter law" that a governmental body cannot promise confidentiality in a settlement agreement to which it is a party.

The Freedom of Information Foundation periodically gets involved in open records disputes both for newspapers and other organizations, said Executive Director Kelley Shannon.

"It happens several times a year, but it is not something that is just commonplace," she said. "We choose our moments carefully, and in this case, we felt like this was really an important public policy matter. It is important for the public to know what their government is doing."

In September, the organization worked with the Center for Media and Democracy.

The two sought records from State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, who asked that her communications with the American Legislative Exchange Council think tank be kept private.

The attorney general's office ruled that Klick's communications with the think tank must be released, according to its website.

Larsen, an attorney from Houston, wrote Friday that if Calhoun County's arguments are successful, it would spawn more arguments like it, depriving the public of information and eroding their confidence in governmental officers and employees.

He said it would be not only surprising but also not responsible governance if the county does not have a copy and cannot obtain a copy of its own settlement agreement.

"This would critically undermine the PIA (Public Information Act)," he wrote.



Powered By AffectDigitalMedia