There’s a new call for criminal charges against the people in charge of Dallas County Schools after the school bus agency continues to refuse to release records requested by NBC 5 Investigates.
The Texas Attorney General’s office has already ruled those records must be turned over, but DCS has, to date, refused, preventing the public from seeing the documents just days before voters decide on the agency's future.
The call for criminal charges comes from an anti-DCS group lead by Texas Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas). They are asking Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson to file charges against DCS leaders unless they turn over those documents by the end of the day Friday.
Let's explain how this all started.
- Two months ago, on July 27, NBC 5 Investigates filed an open records request for a copy of an internal investigation at DCS.
- DCS hired a former FBI agent to look into whether financial crimes caused the agency's massive money problems.
- On Oct. 13, the Texas Attorney General ruled DCS must release those records to NBC 5.
- DCS claims it did not receive the ruling until Oct. 23.
- Still, for more than a week, DCS has refused to turn over the report.
On Tuesday, NBC 5 Investigates went to DCS offices and spoke to interim-Superintendent Gary Lindsey, who again said DCS would not release it.
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It now appears DCS plans to spend taxpayer money to file a lawsuit against the attorney general asking to keep the report secret. If DCS does that, voters would not be able to see that report until after the Nov. 7 Election Day - when voters will decide if DCS should continue to exist.
In a statement, DCS said "certain circumstances have [come] to light since the time DCS requested the initial ruling. The office of attorney general should likely consider this information prior to DCS releasing the requested report."
But Huffines is blasting DCS Thursday saying, "...leadership of DCS is following the same pattern of keeping taxpayers and voters in the dark and that is unacceptable. We're calling on the DA to do everything in her power to immediately get this information to voters and parents, and that includes pursuing criminal charges."
DCS responded Thursday with the following statement: This is exactly why DCS has had to retain specialized legal counsel, as this is yet another blatant disregard for the truth which misleads the public about DCS operations and staff. As public officials, those making these allegations should be aware that DCS is following proper procedures, in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act. When public officials make false statements about the Act itself or falsely accuse other public officials of committing crimes under the Act, this erodes the very trust the Texas Public Information Act seeks to foster.
Legal experts told NBC 5 Investigates that as long as DCS files to block the release by Monday it's highly unlikely anyone at the agency could face criminal charges.
The law gives them 10 days from the day they received the ruling to file a lawsuit. That would be Monday if it's true DCS did not get the letter until Oct. 23.
The Dallas County DA's office said in a statement late Thursday afternoon that it does not have the power to sue the agency to force the release of the records -- on the Texas Attorney General's Office can do that. As for criminal charges, the DA's office said that could not happen until after 10 days have passed without a response. See the DA's full statement here.
The Dallas Morning News published a scathing editorial Thursday criticizing DCS for withholding information from both NBC 5 and the public -- you can read that here.D
Dallas County DA's Full Statement:
“It has come to the attention of the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office that “Dallas Leaders Call for Criminal Charges Against DCS for Failure to Release Public information.”
According to the statement issued by State Senator Don Huffines, on behalf of Protect Dallas Kids, District Attorney Faith Johnson is being called on to “pursue criminal charges against leaders of Dallas County Schools for their refusal to release public information” documents requested pursuant to the Texas Open Meetings Act. They also ask that DA Johnson seek an “emergency court order” to compel production of the documents.
Pursuant to the Texas Open Meetings Act, if a governmental body refuses to make information available that the attorney general has determined is public information that is not excepted from disclosure, either the requestor or the Texas Attorney General may file suit for a writ of mandamus compelling the governmental body to make the information available for public inspection. The authority to file a suit for a writ of mandamus to require immediate production is not provided to the district attorney under the Texas Public Information Act.
With respect to filing a civil suit for injunctive or declaratory relief, the district attorney is given authority to do so, subject to the various procedural requirements, including the filing of a complaint by the requestor in the form mandated by the Public Information Act and the providing of certain notices as required by the Act.
The Public Information Act also provides that an officer for public information, or the officer’s agent, commits an offense if, with criminal negligence, the officer or the officer’s agent fails or refuses to give access to, or permit or provide copying of, public information to a requestor as provided by the Public Information Act. This criminal violation is a misdemeanor. The Act further provides various affirmative defenses to any such criminal prosecution, including the filing of a petition by the governmental entity for declaratory judgment against the attorney general in a Travis County district court seeking relief from compliance with the decision of the attorney general, not later than 10 days after the attorney general’s ruling.
The Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s office is committed to receiving and reviewing any complaints for civil or criminal enforcement and acting on such in accordance with and subject to the duties and limitations as set forth in the Texas Public Information Act.”