Texas superintendent arrested for withholding expense reports

The Llano Independent School District superintendent was arrested Feb. 10 on charges of violating the Texas Public Information Act, concluding a three-month investigation by the state attorney general.

Superintendent Jack Patton was arraigned in the 33rd District Court in Llano on two misdemeanor charges of “failure or refusal to provide access to or copying of public information.” He paid the bond, which was set at $1,000.

Patton could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for each count if convicted.

“The allegations made in this particular situation are very troubling and disappointing,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. “We cannot allow public officials to make a mockery of our open government laws.”

In 2002, the Llano Buzz, a local newspaper, had requested documents relating to the board’s expenses as part of its investigative series on the school’s finances, according to the Austin American-Statesman. At a time when the district was experiencing a $1.3 million budget shortfall, the Buzz broke the story that the board had spent $17,000 on hotel stays and restaurants over 22 months. At the same time, the construction of a new elementary school and junior high school ran more than $1 million over budget.

Patton allegedly refused to release the documents, claiming that the board did not keep records of the charges. Yet the Buzz did obtain itemized receipts for some of them, including one for a $617.37 dinner for three board members, their spouses and Patton during a trip to the Texas Association of School Boards convention. A year later, the Buzz reported on the cost of the dinner and soon afterward Patton sent invoices to himself and the board members to reimburse the cost of the meal. Patton has said that sports teams and school groups accounted for most of the $17,000 in hotel and restaurant charges, although he did not have the records to prove it.

The attorney general will prosecute the case at the request of the county district attorney, but no trial date has been set.

SPLC View: One of the biggest problems with open records and open meetings laws is that lawmakers, prosecutors and courts have rarely put any significant “teeth” into enforcing their provisions. As a result, too many government officials have shirked their responsibility to provide access to public information knowing that the penalty for noncompliance is, if they are punished at all, often not much more than a slap on the hand. It looks like public officials in Texas should be getting a different message.