Per state law, the University of Texas cannot disclose how much money its athletic department received from a beer sponsor.
It will not release materials describing how a California company won the right to build a new basketball arena. The school can’t even say how much it paid rapper Ludacris to perform after the spring football game.
These are just some of the examples of a loophole in the state’s open records laws after two 2015 state Supreme Court rulings shifted power toward private companies. One governmental transparency advocate said those rulings “set us back in time.”
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, co-authored a bill during the legislative session aimed at closing that loophole. Watson’s bill has already been approved by the Senate, and a House version had little resistance.
The measure appears destined to pass, unlike a stiffer 2017 version that stalled out. On April 24, Watson tweeted a photo with Gov. Greg Abbott and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, who drove the effort in the House. “We appreciate the Governor’s support for this important bill,” Watson tweeted.
Great meeting today w/ Gov. @GregAbbott_TX & Rep. @VoteGiovanni re: SB 943, our government transparency and Public Information Act bill. We appreciate the Governor's support for this important bill, which will restore taxpayers' ability to track state and local spending. #txlege pic.twitter.com/4y1oAuAAI1
— Senator Kirk Watson (@KirkPWatson) April 24, 2019
Those court decisions, most notably the Boeing v. Paxton case, gave private companies wide latitude in blocking information that used to be public. In some cases, that included the entire contract or the amount paid to government entities.
Watson said Senate Bill 943 “will correct much of this damage” done by the Boeing decision and the Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton case. This new bill will ensure “private contractors cannot use various exceptions to block the public’s access to key contract terms like final price the government will pay, deliverables, and deadlines.”
University of Texas spokesman Gary Susswein said the school was merely following the law.
“State law allows agencies to withhold information about competitive contracts and transactions that would be financially damaging if released,” Susswein said. “Whenever we believe the release of information would be financially damaging, we seek the Attorney General’s opinion and follow the AG’s guidance on whether we may withhold it.”
The UT athletic department is a self-sustaining entity. No taxpayer money is used to fund any aspect of Longhorns athletics. All revenue is derived from mostly fundraising, ticket sales and TV contracts. However, the athletic department still must adhere to all government rules as part of a state entity.
In the fall of 2017, the Texas Attorney General’s office issued a ruling to the American-Statesman saying it would deny the newspaper’s request to obtain the contract between UT and Constellation Brands, the makers of Corona beer.
UT took no position on the request, but Constellation took exception. The AG specifically cited the Boeing decision and said the release of the contract “would give advantage to a competitor or bidder.” Corona beer is now a prominent sponsor of Texas athletics and sold at the concession stands.
The Statesman was unable to receive a copy of the documents submitted by Oak View Group during the bidding process to build UT’s new basketball arena. Oak View won the right to build and manage the $338 million facility on UT land adjacent to Royal-Memorial Stadium.
“The third party has not agreed to the release of the information at issue,” a UT System attorney wrote in a letter to the Statesman.
In a letter to the Texas Attorney General, UT’s open records coordinator specifically cited the Boeing decision as a “commonly raised exception” pertaining to confidentiality of information relating to competition.
IMG College blocked the release of the amount paid to Ludacris for his post-spring game concert. In 2016, the University of Georgia paid Ludacris $65,000 to perform after its spring game, according to information reported by Georgia media outlets.
The school also had to fulfill a long list of contract riders, which included some embarrassing items. Georgia officials had to provide the singer with two boxes of condoms, scented candles, two bottles of vodka and two bottles of cognac.
Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said “there was none of that” in UT’s contract. “I read that thing pretty close,” Del Conte said. Still, Ludacris’ full contract with UT has not been released.
One high-ranking UT administrator told the Statesman, “Of course, this is silly. But it’s the law.”
Texas officials have a long history of releasing all kinds of information through open records requests, many leading to unpleasant news coverage.
In recent months, the school released the results of an investigation into whether Sen. Charles Schwertner sent a sexually explicit text and picture to a graduate student. The school also released details about the Texas Cowboys spirit group and the death of a new member several hours after alleged hazing incidents.
UT also released some employee files on legendary quarterback Vince Young when he was fired earlier this year after his second drunk driving arrest.
Kelley Shannon, the executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the state once had “one of the strongest open government laws in the nation and it was working just fine.” Before the Boeing decision, that is.
“When you’re dealing with public money and earning money that belongs to the people,” Shannon said, “you as a company have to realize that some transparency comes along with that.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.