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Official liable for inadvertent meetings violations

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Official liable for inadvertent meetings violations 06/30/97 TEXAS--A government official can be found guilty of violating the Open Meetings Act…

Official liable for inadvertent meetings violations

06/30/97

TEXAS–A government official can be found guilty of violating the Open Meetings Act by calling or participating in an illegal closed meeting, even when the official is unaware that secrecy violates the law, a state court of appeals in San Antonio ruled in mid-June.

Joe Tovar, the former president of the Somerset Independent School Board, was indicted on two counts of violating the act. He was accused of knowingly participating in a special closed meeting that was not permitted under the act, and with organizing another special meeting that also violated the act.

A jury found Tovar guilty, assessed a $500 fine and six months in prison. The sentence was commuted to probation.

Tovar appealed, contending that he was not aware the meeting violated the act. He contended he could not be found guilty unless the jury first determined that he had closed the meeting with the knowledge that it was illegal.

The court of appeals held that the jury did not need to find Tovar knew he was violating the act. The plain language of the statute, the court reasoned, requires only knowledge of organizing or participating in a meeting. The act is not concerned with whether the actor knows a secret meeting is contrary to law, the court held.

Even though the act “may appear onerous to the official who in good faith, is executing the duties of his office,” the court held, the act does not contain a good faith exception. (Tovar v. Texas)