The State Bar of Texas has sued Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, seeking relief from a June 28 letter ruling issued by the Texas Office of the Attorney General. That ruling calls for the Bar to turn over copies of bank statements and checks to a Texas Lawyer reporter.
The Bar alleges it should not have to release the information reporter Angela Morris requested under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). Morris sought information regarding a Bar “investigation into a potential misappropriation of funds by a Bar employee who serves as a deputy clerk of the Texas Supreme Court.”
The Bar alleges in its July 9 petition, filed in Travis County state district court, that the matter is subject to an “ongoing criminal investigation.” The Bar alleges the AG erred in concluding that information “falling within section 552.022 of the TPIA can never fall within the law enforcement exception, section 552.108.”
Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the AG’s office, declines comment on the petition in State Bar of Texas v. Honorable Greg Abbott, Attorney General of the State of Texas.
The dispute stems from a TPIA request Morris filed on April 10 seeking “documents, emails, correspondence, accounting records, copies of checks, and any and all other types of records, regarding a State Bar of Texas investigation into a potential misappropriation of funds by a Bar employee who serves as a deputy clerk of the Texas Supreme Court.”
The Bar alleges in the petition that it began an investigation after it discovered a “number of questionable checks” when reconciling bank statements for a Supreme Court account primarily used for reimbursing attorneys who overpaid their annual dues. The Bar alleges it and the Supreme Court notified the Travis County DA’s office, and the DA’s office and the Austin Police Department “took possession of records concerning the matter, indicated that they would likely need additional records, and requested that questions and requests for records regarding the matter be directed to them.”
After receiving Morris’ TPIA request, the Bar on April 24 asked for an AG opinion on the request. In a June 28 letter ruling, the AG found that “much of the requested information could be withheld” but it required release of bank statements and copies of checks for the account in question, the Bar alleges in the petition.
“The decision did so on the basis that such information can never, as a matter of law, fall within the law enforcement exception. The State Bar seeks relief from that aspect of the decision,” the Bar alleges in the petition.
In the letter ruling, signed by Assistant Attorney General Sean Nottingham of the Open Records Division, the AG’s office found the documents at issue fall under a “discretionary exception that may be waived and does not make information confidential under the Act.”
However, the Bar alleges in the petition that the information falls under the “law enforcement exception” of the TPIA.
“The request specifically seeks information that is subject to an ongoing criminal investigation, information the disclosure of which would clearly interfere with the ability of law enforcement officers and prosecutors to investigate the potential misappropriation of funds,” the Bar alleges in the petition.
In the petition, the Bar asks the court to review the information and take in camera testimony from law enforcement investigators to determine if §552.108 applies.
Jennifer Riggs, a shareholder in Riggs Aleshire & Ray in Austin who represents the Bar in the suit, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.