Texas leaders fight requests to release USGP-related documents

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Well, it didn’t take too long for the typical politics to start encroaching on the planned U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

Gov. Rick Perry and state Comptroller Susan Combs, who seems to be the one most involved with the effort to bring Formula 1 to Texas, are fighting requests from Austin’s newspaper to release documents regarding the USGP.

Here’s how the Austin American-Statesman is describing things:

Here’s what Gov. Rick Perry’s office told the Austin Business Journal three weeks ago when news broke that a Formula One race might be coming to Austin, thanks in part to $25 million in taxpayer assistance: “We gave them a quote for the press release, but beyond that the comptroller’s office handled it.”

So we were a little surprised at Perry’s response to our open-records request to see the documents, correspondence and communications to and from the governor’s office related to the behind-the-scenes discussions to bring the race to Texas:

No.

Instead of turning over documents, the governor’s office is resisting. Yesterday, it filed a request seeking an attorney general’s ruling as to whether or not Perry legally has to release the records. According to state law, the AG has 45 business days to weigh in.

[snip]

As far as the rest of the documents, however, we’re left guessing. So that’s what we’ll do.

That Perry would insist that he played no role and then try to shield records that would prove so raises questions. After all, if the governor’s participation really only amounted to providing a supportive quote, what’s to hide?

A possible explanation: Reading between the lines of his office’s request for legal advice on our open records request suggests that perhaps he was more involved in the talks to bring F1 to Austin than he’s letting on. Let’s go to the tea leaves.

[snip]

The most intriguing part of the governor’s request to keep his record hidden, however, is this: “We also believe that some of the responsive information may implicate the property interests of a third party” — a claim that, once again, seems to be saying that Perry’s involvement with Formula One ran much deeper than his office has admitted — perhaps even down to site selection.

[snip]

One final note for open records geeks: state law says that agencies must turn over public documents as soon as reasonably possible, but no later than 10 business days can pass before they do so or provide as explanation as to why. The governor and comptroller each waited until late afternoon of Day 10 before revealing they were asking for the AG’s ruling, thereby maximizing the time the documents will be shielded from view.

Now, to put this in a little bit of perspective, journalists often make these requests and almost as often they are turned down or fought in some manner. In many ways it is a part and parcel of the “adversarial” relationship between government and the media.

But does it for sure suggest there’s something worth hiding?

Not necessarily. Although it is reasonable to wonder, “Well, if there’s nothing to hide, why not just release the stuff?”

Part of it comes down to the “adversarial” part of that adversarial relationship. Government doesn’t want to make it easy on the media to get this type of information. One reason is that when there really is something to hide — for legitimate reasons or not — governmental leaders don’t want to have lowered the bar on what the media (and the public) can access.

Part of it comes down to the “relationship” part of that adversarial relationship. It might be that Perry’s office doesn’t like the Statesman or doesn’t like these reporters. Responding to a records request is a pain, for one thing. It’s extra work. (Grace can tell you how government workers feel about extra work!) And there just might not be much of a relationship there — in other words, not one that would make the lines of communication very open.

Most likely, the USGP organizers (and maybe Formula 1 officials, too) have told Texas leaders that they need as much quiet time right now to iron out any last-minute financing or property purchases. If any negotiations are going on, something within these records could affect that. It could be something as simple as an e-mail that suggests one site is by far the preferred venue. If that came out, the owner of that land would have a lot more leverage in any talks.

But did Rick Perry get some kind of sketchy, borderline unethical promise from Bernie Ecclestone or the USGP organizers? Probably not, as great as that story would be.

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