To the Editor,
Rodney Ramsey is deceiving the citizens of Ellis County. In his quest to become the next county judge of Ellis County, he is making a claim that is, at best, a distortion of the facts and, at worst, a complete fabrication. In literature for his political campaign, Ramsey attacks current county judge Carol Bush by claiming, “Our County [sic] has also spent tens of thousands of your tax dollars in a lawsuit to keep her emails from being released from public view.” That is false. My office conducts and oversees all litigation conducted on behalf of Ellis County. When someone makes a misleading claim involving that subject, I am compelled to set the record straight.
Among the many tasks performed by the attorneys in my office, we respond to requests for information received by various county departments pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act (PIA). The PIA is a minefield of legal obligations and responsibilities for government offices. Those obligations include disclosing that which must be disclosed, and keeping confidential that which must be kept confidential. Failure to comply with the PIA in either regard can result in civil or criminal penalties. In an average month, my office responds to 30 or more PIA requests. To ensure compliance with the law, the response to some individual requests requires the vetting of thousands of pages of information.
A great deal of information may be lawfully excepted from disclosure, such as information that is protected by the attorney-client privilege, medical records, or information that could jeopardize a person’s safety, to name just a few. To claim an exception, the information that is responsive to a request must be submitted within ten business days to the office of the Texas Attorney General. The AG’s office will then determine whether the exception applies. If the public agency disagrees with the AG’s ruling, then the only recourse for the agency is to file a lawsuit against the Attorney General in a District Court in Travis County.
On June 28, 2016, two separate four-pronged requests for public information were submitted by the same requestor to both my office and to the office of Ellis County Judge Carol Bush. Three of those requests were clear and easy to understand. But one of those requests was poorly worded and subject to many interpretations. That request asked for, “Any email from [Judge Bush or Patrick Wilson] to any recipient regarding, concerning, or related to county elections in Ellis County from March 2009 to present from [her or his] county email account and from [her or his] county computer.” Elections is the name of a department of Ellis County government. A new facility for that department was under construction at the time of the request. Ellis County contracts with many taxing entities in Ellis County, to conduct elections for those entities. There are also many elected office holders in Ellis County, at various levels. What, specifically, does “regarding, concerning, or related to county elections” mean?
As allowed by Section 552.222(b) of the Public Information Act, my office promptly asked the requestor to clarify the requests. The requestor defiantly refused to provide the asked-for clarification and, in response, added, “[W]e would also request personal emails regarding her election process.”
If a public employee writes an email on a publicly owned computer, then that email could be subject to disclosure, no matter the subject of that email. Even an email written by a public employee on a privately owned computer could be subject to disclosure if the email concerns public affairs. But personal emails written on a privately owned computer by a public employee – from a city clerk to the Governor of Texas - relating to non-government affairs, such as a personal election process, clearly fall outside the scope of the Texas Public Information Act. Personal privacy rights do not evaporate when someone goes to work for the public.
In response to the two similar requests received by my office and by the office of the county judge, my office compiled the relevant documents and, on separate dates, we submitted them to the Texas Attorney General, to seek separate rulings on what could be released in light of the various exceptions that we claimed for only a portion of the documents. However, in response to our two separate requests, on September 28, 2016, the Attorney General issued a bizarre and confusing single opinion that clearly conflated the two cases. For instance, the opinion from the AG’s office only says that a request for information was received by “the County and District Attorney’s Office of Ellis County.” There is no mention made of the request received by the county judge. Plus, the AG’s ruling would require me to personally disclose something that has never been, and never will be, in my possession: the personal emails of another elected official.
After we received that confusing ruling, the original requestor was provided with 35 pages of documents from my office and 2,337 pages of documents from the county judge’s office, the release of which was never contested by anyone from Ellis County. Those documents were received by the requestor on January 4, 2017. In order to obtain clarification on the confusing language in the AG’s opinion, there was only one remedy at law available to my office: file suit against the Attorney General in Travis County, and ask a court to clarify. There is no other option. My office filed that suit on October 7, 2016. To-date, there have been no rulings on the case.
This case is not about the county judge trying to hide public information because that has not occurred. This is about lawyers in the office of the Attorney General issuing a ruling that is nonsensical and a misapplication of the law. It is also just one of the thousands of cases handled by my office every day, in the normal course of business. On behalf of the citizens of Ellis County, we handle everything from traffic tickets to murder, and human resources to contracts. Rodney Ramsey’s claim that this case has cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars is a complete fabrication.
This explanation is supported by the enclosed, publicly available documents.
Patrick M. Wilson, County & District Attorney