Texas AG Ken Paxton denies his office violated the Open Records Act

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday denied violating the state’s Open Records Act, dismissing claims by a Travis County prosecutor that his office should release communications from the week of the Capitol attack in the January 6.

Paxton had delivered a speech at a pro-Trump rally just hours before violence erupted in Washington, but his office did not issue messages to Texas media seeking the records under the Texas Public Information Act. .

Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza’s office opened an investigation after top editors of several of the state’s largest newspapers wrote a joint complaint about Paxton’s denials of their requests for information. These newspapers are the Austin American-Statesman, the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle, and the San Antonio Express-News.

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The district attorney’s office warned Paxton last week that he would take legal action if his office did not correct the Open Records Act violations within four days. In a letter to the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, Paxton’s office called the allegations “without merit” and said there were “no violations to be remedied.”

“Frustrated at not having uncovered anything worth reporting following ‘numerous requests for tapes made to AG Paxton’s office for various documents’, the editors of the complaining newspapers sought to draw taken advantage of your office’s authority to continue their fishing expedition, or worse, fabricate a dispute between our respective offices that will result in publishable content for plaintiffs’ media,” Paxton General Counsel Austin Kinghorn wrote. .

The attorney general’s office provided a copy of the letter to the Texas Tribune. Paxton’s office did not return a request for comment to the newspapers, or provide a copy of the letter.

Garza is a Democrat. Paxton is a Republican seeking re-election this year. He is currently facing the fiercest scrutiny of his decades-long political career, with multiple GOP challengers, three state criminal indictments, allegations of an extramarital affair and an ongoing FBI corruption investigation.

Ken Paxton denies wrongdoing related to January 6 attack

Paxton denied any wrongdoing. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office confirmed that officials received the letter but declined to answer further questions.

Texas Public Information Law guarantees the public’s right to government records, even if those records are stored on personal devices or in the online accounts of public officials. The Attorney General’s office enforces this law, determining which documents are public and which are private.

In March, a Texas media coalition sought to draw attention to the problem by reporting a joint story about denied requests for information and finding that the bureau had no policy for publishing stored work-related messages. on personal Paxton devices or accounts.

On January 4, five newspaper publishers filed a lawsuit asking the district attorney to investigate the alleged violations. Anyone filing an Open Record request in Texas can also file a complaint with a local prosecutor if they believe a public body is withholding information in violation of the Public Information Act.

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The district attorney’s office had carefully reviewed the editors’ complaint and agreed with every concern they raised, according to a Jan. 13 letter to Paxton from Jackie Wood, director of the Public Integrity Unit. and complex crimes.

Wood said Paxton’s office violated the law by claiming that all of his messages at the time of the Jan. 6 rally were excluded from public distribution under solicitor-client privilege. Wood noted that nearly 500 pages of communications to and from First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster during the same period had been released, and no exemptions were cited for those documents.

The attorney general’s office responded that all non-privileged communications had been released and that the plaintiffs had no evidence that Paxton or his office had broken the law.

In another example cited by the media, a Dallas Morning News reporter sent Paxton a work-related text message in February and another reporter then requested all of the Attorney General’s messages for that day.

Paxton’s office responded to the open case request saying no responsive messages existed. A spokesperson for Paxton later said the attorney general did not have to keep “unsolicited and intrusive text messages on home phones”. Wood, in his letter, said the attorney general’s office broke the law by not storing or providing work-related messages on his personal devices.

More than 60 Texans face riot charges at the Capitol. Less than 1 in 6 have been found guilty.

In Friday’s letter, Paxton’s office reiterated that claim, saying that if the post was public information, it would be considered transitory and could be removed.

Wood also accepted the publishers’ complaint that Paxton appeared to post copies of other people’s communications in response to requests for his text messages and was unable to provide his own copy.

For example, in response to a request for information from reporters, Paxton did not provide his own text messages to officials at the Utah attorney general’s office – where he and his wife traveled during the February freeze. — and instead delivered a copy of someone else’s message. SMS to Paxton.

The attorney general’s office did not explain why Paxton did not provide his own version of the text swap.

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“The Public Information Act (PIA) does not require a records custodian to provide all versions of transitional information that existed at any given time if those versions are no longer maintained at the time of the PIA request,” it reads. in the letter.

Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney and transparency expert, called some of the agency’s explanations “hogwash.”

Even if a recording is considered transitory, he said, it cannot be deleted once a member of the public requests it under state records law. Aleshire also disputed that questions sent by a reporter could be considered transitory.

“The fact that he got a request from a journalist that was unwelcome doesn’t make it fleeting. It’s official business,” he said. ‘ignore, fine, but the record shows he chose to ignore it.’

“He’s the guy who’s supposed to enforce the law,” Aleshire said. “It’s amazing.”

Most of the posts sought by reporters focus on his communications during a nearly week-long period surrounding the Jan. 6 riot at the United States Capitol. Hours before the attack, Paxton stood at a lectern before a crowd of thousands at a pro-Trump ‘Save America’ rally, vowing to ‘not stop fighting’ against the election results. of 2020.

A month earlier, Paxton challenged general election results in four battleground states won by President Joe Biden: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In the U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit, he argued that states made unconstitutional changes to their election laws amid COVID-19. The case was dismissed by the court for lack of standing.

The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack unearthed dozens upon dozens of text messages and other communications, shedding new light on the timeline of events that day as well as the efforts by some urging the former president to defuse the event. However, little is known of Paxton’s activities that day.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Eleanor Dearman contributed to this report

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