NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · TEXAS · Freedom of Information · June 1, 2005
Open meetings violation sparks criminal indictment
June 1, 2005 · A Texas grand jury issued the state’s first criminal indictment for violating the Open Meetings Act, marking a first for the state’s attorney general’s office. John Wesley Moore II, former president of the New Diana Independent School District, was indicted by an Upshur County grand jury for conspiring to circumvent the state’s Open Meetings Act, Attorney General Greg Abbott announced May 25.
“This is part of Attorney General Abbott’s attempts to improve open government laws across the board,” said Tom Kelly, Abbott’s press secretary. “He is pursuing improvements to the laws and how public officials comply with those laws.”
Moore allegedly had private conversations with several school board members to gauge support for a possible severance package for then-Superintendent Dan Noll in return for Noll’s resignation, according to Abbott’s office. The board approved a severance package in May 2004.
Texas law prohibits officials from knowingly trying to circumvent the act by secretly deliberating with as few as one other member of the public board. Such an offense is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $100 to $500, jail time of one to six months, or both.
The grand jury also indicted Noll for alleged abuse of official capacity on evidence that he misused public funds while in office, which is a felony. Moore confessed an open meetings violation to Upshur County District Attorney Michael Fetter with hope that the meeting approving Noll’s severance package would be voided. Any action taken that violates the Open Meetings Act can be voided, according to the law.
Fetter, who had original jurisdiction to enforce the Open Meetings Act, requested help from Abbott’s office because of conflicts of interest with the parties involved. Moore was planning to oppose Fetter in the next election, and Fetter had a personal relationship with Noll, according to Abbott’s office.
The indictments came days after Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation that charges the attorney general’s office with ensuring that all Texas public officials obtain open government training. That law, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires all newly elected or appointed officials to take the class within 90 days of entering office.
This legislation might not have prevented violations such as the actions resulting in this indictment, Abbott said in a statement, but he hopes it will show public officials that Texas is taking its open meeting and open records laws seriously.
Kelly said the new law will help the office by reducing the number of requests they get from public officials regarding what records should or should not be open.
“We get and respond to nearly 11,000 requests a year,” he said. “Our resources can be better used in educating public officials.”