HOUSTON – A Texas Court of Appeals has thrown out a lawsuit Hartman Newspapers filed against Sheriff Troy E. Nehls and Fort Bend County in a dispute based on a withholding of investigation documents.
The announcement that the lawsuit was found to be moot was filed by Chief Justice Sherry Radack and Justices Laura Carter Higley and Rebeca Huddle on April 27.
Hartman Newspapers sued Nehls and Fort Bend County on Aug. 21 after its managing editor, Scott Reese Willey, requested to obtain the public records from the sheriff's office regarding a bribery investigation. Hartman Newspapers Chairman Bill Hartman had stated that the company has had several issues with receiving information from the county throughout the years.
The document the newspaper requested July 31, 2015, was to reveal who requested that the county's sheriff’s office to investigate the allegations of attempted bribery made by two Lamar Consolidated Independent School district trustees from a June 18, 2015, board meeting, according to the court..
Assistant County Attorney Matthew L. Grove sent a letter to Willey stating that the documents were “not subject to public disclosure because they contain information believed to be confidential and/or privileged by law,” according to the court. Grove sought advisement from the state attorney general's office and concluded that the documents could be concealed due to a government code stating that law enforcement information does not have to be released if it could interfere with the investigation, detection or prosecution of a crime.
In the suit, Hartman Newspapers asked for an order compelling the sheriff and the county to produce identifying information about the person who filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office regarding the bribery case, a declaratory judgment that the newspaper is entitled to requested information, and to have attorney fees paid.
Hartman's proceedings named the Texas Public Information Act (PIA) and the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act (UDJA) as justifications for the suit. Under PIA, when public information is requested, a governmental body’s officer for public records is required to produce the public information for inspection, duplication, or both. The UDJA says that there must be a controversy between parties and that the controversy must be "determined by the judicial declaration sought." The controversy hinges upon whether the parties have a "legally cognizable interest in the outcome."
In response to the petition and after permission from the attorney general's office, the defendants sent Hartman a letter that included the names of the people who met at the sheriff’s office and other basic information about the case.
The defendants filed a plea to jurisdiction stating that they had sent information to the newspaper that should have satisfied their request, and thus, the case was moot. The defendants also claimed Hartman was not entitled to attorney fees under the UDJA because the UDJA was "merely incidental to Hartman’s claim for relief under the PIA," court documents stated.
At the hearing for the plea to jurisdiction, Bill Hartman testified that though the company received the requested information, it should have been sent sooner, without the permission of the attorney general.
The trial court denied Nehls' and Fort Bend County's plea, so the defendants appealed.
A court of appeals panel concluded that since Hartman received the information it requested under the PIA, the case was moot. It also declared that the newspaper is not entitled to attorney's fees. The trial court's decision was reversed and the case was dismissed.