The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday Governor Rick Perry’s travel details can remain secret, overturning rulings by two lower courts which declared Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers’ travel vouchers be made public.
DPS troopers provide security detail for Perry’s official travels and in 2007, the San Antonio Express News, Austin American Statesman and the Houston Chronicle sued to obtain detailed travel vouchers for the security team.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson stated: “The public’s right to ‘complete information’ must yield when disclosure of that information would substantially threaten physical harm,” according to the Express News.
Previously, a Travis Country district court ruled troopers’ detailed travel vouchers posed no risk to security and made public. Later, an appellate court agreed.
However, the state’s high court issued an order to the trial court to provide more substance to DPS concerns of a safety threat of physical harm in the governor’s travels.
“DPS is likely correct in one sense: disclosure of some of the information in the vouchers may create a substantial threat of physical harm because it reveals specific details about the number of officers assigned to protect the governor, their general location in relation to him, and their dates of travel,” Jefferson continued in the opinion. “We cannot agree that information form prior trips could not be used to inflict future harm.”
DPS had argued those travel vouchers being made public would jeopardize Perry’s safety, therefore they should be exempt from a public records law requiring disclosure. DPS agreed to provide a lump sum for trip expenses.
The public’s right to know how state money was being spent was a basis in the lawsuit, the newspapers argued, and the court did find the threat to the governor’s safety may not be sufficient justification for withholding all but expenses related to the governor’s travels.
Perry, who many state and national GOP leaders are urging he seek a presidential run, is the nation’s longest serving governor. In his time as governor, he has traveled extensively throughout the country and abroad. While most of his travel expenses are covered by his political campaign and other sources, taxpayers are responsible for his security detail.
Perry’s 12-day trip to Asia last year took a bite out of taxpayers’ pockets to the tune of $129,000, just for security, the Houston Chronicle reported. Of that amount, airfare costs for the security officers on the trip was $34,339, the single largest expenditure in the category. Hotel bills were $20,202. Their base pay for the trip was $24,222 and their overtime pay totaled $22,769.
At the time, Perry claimed the trip gave added exposure to Texas for business opportunities.
In the court’s majority opinion, Jefferson continued: “The public has a legitimate interest in how public money is spent on official state business.”
By a 7-0 vote the court ruled on the matter, with Justices Phil Johnson and Dale Wainwright filing separate opinions in disagreement with the majority’s creating a new exception in the law. The two justices agreed the case should be sent back to trial court. Two other justices, David Medina and Don Willett, were non-participants in the decision.
Responding to the high court ruling, Keith Elkins, with the Freedom of Information Foundation, said: “It’s a setback for supporters of open government who believe taxpayers have right to know how their money is spent in detail, not just in summary," according to the Houston Chronicle. He added the high court has turned “the lights out on transparency” at a time when the public seeks more of it.
A state government spokesperson, however, noted there should be a balance between security and open government. “It’s unfortunate that security is such an important issue in this day and age,” said Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman, the Express News reports. “The governor will continue advocating for the appropriate balance between security and transparency.”