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State destroys records in hunt for missing lawmakers

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State destroys records in hunt for missing lawmakers

  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security refused to turn over tapes of its conversations with the Texas law enforcement officers who sought the federal agency’s assistance to track down Democratic legislators.

May 23, 2003 — The Texas Department of Public Safety ordered destroyed all records and photos gathered in its search for Democratic state representatives who left for Oklahoma May 11, the day before a vote was scheduled on redistricting efforts proposed by the Republicans. Their absence made a vote impossible under Texas law because no quorum could be reached.

In the one-sentence e-mail order, obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on May 20, the DPS commander instructed that all “notes, correspondence, photos, etc.” concerning the search “be destroyed immediately.”

On May 22, in response to a request by Rep. Lon Burnham, (D-Fort Worth), a state judge in Austin issued a temporary order barring the destruction of some DPS records that had not already been destroyed.

The Department of Public Safety claimed the records destruction was necessary under a federal law that prohibits police from retaining any intelligence gathered on persons who are not suspected of criminal activity, such as the missing legislators.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security refused to release information on how it became involved in tracking the missing members. Texas state troopers had asked federal authorities to help track former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney’s plane after he and fifty other Texas Democrats remained away from the May 12 Texas House session.

The federal agency will not release tapes it has of conversations between federal officials and a DPS officer. Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas) requested the tapes from Homeland Security because he and other congressmen say they believe they could reveal whether Texas officials misled federal authorities in convincing them to help with the search.

“I made a request of you that you allow the committee to hear the tapes of those conversations,” Turner said to Homeland Security head Tom Ridge during a May 20 hearing of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. “And I got back a response yesterday, indicating that because [an] inspector general investigation had been launched, we will not be allowed to hear the tapes.”

Turner said that there was “really no basis for the department to deny the committee opportunity to hear the tapes” because some information from them already had been given to the press.

Ridge said he would “go back and review that denial.”

“Those transcripts [of conversations between federal and state officials] are public record and should be released,” said Wanda Cash, president of The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Cash also said she believes that by destroying documents, the Texas DPS subverted the law.

Rob Wiley, past president of the foundation, said that destroying the records in this case was “not normal procedure . . . it is very unusual to see state government documents be destroyed this quickly after they’re made.”


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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