Texas jury finds superintendent guilty of violating open-records act

TEXAS — Jack Patton, superintendent of the Llano Independent School District, became the first government official to be criminally prosecuted under the Texas open-records act in August when a jury found him guilty of withholding district financial records.

After a four-day trial and five hours of jury deliberation, Patton was sentenced to a six-month probated jail sentence and a $1,000 fine for not responding to a local newspaper’s request to see detailed expense reports on the use of district credit cards. 

The Texas Public Information Act requires that governmental bodies and officials respond promptly to open-record requests or provide legal arguments within 10 business days explaining why they will not.  

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the case is an example of how strictly he will uphold Texans’ right to public information.  

“Openness is indispensable to promoting a responsive and citizen-centered government,” Abbott said. “That’s why this issue is so important to me, and why I will continue to be a champion of open government in Texas.”

Eric Bishop, publisher of the Llano Buzz, which requested the records and helped with the attorney general’s investigation, said he was content with the ruling.  He emphasized, however, that the real challenge now will be holding “those rotten apples” — Patton’s cohorts in profligate spending of school funds — responsible for their part. 

“Now they know that the law that has been on the books for over 30 years does have teeth, and they will hopefully be more reluctant to circumvent it,” Bishop said.

The requested credit card bills totaled more than $17,000, including a $617.37 dinner for Patton, three board members and their spouses during a state school board convention. n