Waiting for Tillis’ records
Here’s a bit of a wonky update about a public records request I filed in early May with N.C House Speaker Thom Tillis’ office.
Feel free to read on, or skip over if lengthy posts about North Carolina’s public records law are too trying on your brain this Friday afternoon.
Back in June, I made mention in this article of a May 3 public records request I filed with Tillis’ office seeking documents about a Florida trip he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers took on the dime of a pro-school voucher lobbying group.
I wanted access to all the documents and correspondence his office had in relation to the trip organized by Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina about a controversial tax credit scholarship program that allowed companies to divert their taxes to scholarship programs that send low-income children to religious or private schools.
More than two months after I made my public information request, I’m still waiting.
Granted, things have been busy at the legislature with budget negotiations in the just-closed short session, but it was also a session in which North Carolinians almost ended up with a version of the tax credit scholarship that Tillis and other lawmakers flew down to Florida to hear about.
It’d be nice to let the public have a closer look at what happened before this controversial policy ended up on the desks of state legislatures to vote on.
On the Florida trip, legislators met with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and got a positive spin about a controversial tax credit scholarship program that the school choice groups want to bring to North Carolina. Several of the lawmakers on the trip — Tillis among them — also got campaign money shortly before or after the trip from the lobbying group
In June, more than a month after my information request was filed, Tillis’ office replied that they had my public records request.
I retrieved a thin manila envelope that had four items — the agenda of the trip, a legal memorandum the group drew up that told lawmakers the trip was ethically okay, a 2008 ethics opinion the group had obtained for a different trip, and a reaction memorandum the group typed up to my article.
Not included were any emails between Tillis, his staff and PEFNC.
When releasing the records, Tillis’ office sidestepped away from saying they were giving me the records under the public records law, which doesn’t allow state agencies to pick and choose what they’d like the public to see.
“These documents are being provided without regard to whether or not they would be considered a public records or area otherwise privileged or confidential under the North Carolina statutory or common law, including by way of example G.S> 132-1, 120-129 et seq.; or legislative privilege. In providing the enclosed documents, we do not waive, abrogate, or otherwise obviate any applicable laws or legal rights,” read this letter from Tillis’ office (available here).
I reiterated my public records request, and told them that I was looking for all the records that the state’s public records law entitles me to see and not just the slim pack of records that was provided.
Tillis’ spokesman Jordan Shaw said this week that the office, now that the busy short legislative session is over, is still working on my request.
No timeline was offered as to when I can pick up those records.
What our law says about public records
Most North Carolina citizens don’t know a lot about the rights they have under the state’s public records law, but our law (click here to read) makes nearly all documents related to the business of state or local government open for public inspection.
You don’t have to say why you want to see them, and the agency can only withhold records that fall under a narrow list of exemptions — things like documents related to criminal investigation in the hands of police, company’s trade secrets, personal tax information or attorney-client communications.
The legislature, back when it was under control of the Democrats, carved itself out some pretty significant exemptions to the public records laws, making legislative communications where lawmakers or General Assembly staff ask for information from state agencies confidential.
The legislative communication exemption doesn’t make every piece of paper inside the Jones Street legislative building off-limits by any means, said John Bussian, a Durham-based First Amendment and public records attorney. Bussian is also a lobbyist for the North Carolina Press Association.
“There is a broad legislative privilege,” Bussian said. But, “it doesn’t wall off public access to reports and documents of what they do with people outside the legislature.
“In general, the public has a right to access government records that related to lawmakers’ communications with lobbyists and others not employed at the General Assembly,” Bussian said.
And that’s what I’m waiting for.
Holding state lawmakers accountable to the public and emphasizing the public’s rights to their records are issues that Tillis said he would make a priority when he became House Speaker in 2011.
“We’re living up to our commitment to be more transparent,” Tillis told the Associated Press in March 2011 about his pledge.
Let’s hope that’s the case.
As for the records related to the Florida trip, I’ll update readers as to when I get them, and what (if anything) is contained in those communications.