Fort Worth lawmaker tries to block request for information on dealings with conservative group

By David Barer
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Aug. 15, 2013

AUSTIN — A Fort Worth lawmaker has turned to the attorney general to block a request for information that could show her interactions with the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative think tank.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a Wisconsin-based government watchdog group, requested through Texas public records laws in early July that state lawmakers release documents. All of the lawmakers complied with the request except Republican Rep. Stephanie Klick, said Brendan Fischer with the watchdog group.

In a letter to the attorney general, Klick argues that the correspondence can remain confidential under the deliberative process privilege, which often protects candid opinions among lawmakers and other government officials. The privilege is rarely used to protect a third party like the legislative council, commonly known as ALEC.

Joe Larsen, a First Amendment attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Center, which is helping in the request, says Klick’s request falls short because ALEC is not a government organization. If Klick is able to withhold the information, Larsen said, it would be a huge blow to transparency between lobbyists and lawmakers.

“Any kind of an organization could be set up and get a lawmaker involved as a member,” Larsen said. “And then you would be able to shut off from public view the discussions of the organization to influence legislation.”

Klick could not be reached for comment. The purpose of the privilege is to “protect advice, opinion, and recommendations in the decisional process and encourage open and frank discussion in the deliberative process,” she wrote to Attorney General Greg Abbott in July.

ALEC creates model legislation used by lawmakers around the country to craft laws. The “stand your ground” self-defense law in Florida was an ALEC initiative.

In a letter to Abbott, ALEC attorneys argued that the group’s members could be subject to harassment, threats and reprisal if the documents are made public.

Fischer says open records are particularly important to determine the influence of organizations like ALEC.

“The press and average citizens are barred from attending ALEC meetings, and legislators rarely disclose if a particular bill they’ve introduced came from ALEC,” he writes in a letter to Abbott.

Larsen and the Freedom of Information Center plan to file brief with the attorney general in the coming weeks.