Private entities operating like a chamber of commerce are not government bodies and therefore are not subject to the Public Information Act, even if they receive public funding, the Texas Supreme Court opined June 26.

In October 2013, the Greater Houston Partnership, a non-profit corporation that functions as a chamber of commerce to promote economic development, petitioned the high court seeking to reverse a judgment declaring GHP a “governmental body” under the PIA, court records show.

More than 90 percent of GHP’s $11.7 million annual operating budget comes from its 2,100 member companies. Less than 8 percent comes from the city of Houston, which contracts with GHP for research, advertising and economic development services.

Houston local Jim Jenkins, relying on those contracts, made a request under the PIA for a copy of GHP’s 2007 and 2008 check registers, claiming GHP is a “governmental body” under the act because it is “supported in whole or in part by public funds,” court records show.

GHP refused and requested a ruling from then Attorney General Greg Abbott, now governor, who concluded it indeed was, prompting the organization to file a suit arguing that it is not a governmental body and that the PIA does not apply to privately-controlled entities performing services under quid pro quo government contracts.

The Supreme Court held that GHP, like lobbying shops and law firms that also populate the state payroll, shares many common objectives with the city, but without more, such shared interests can hardly transform a service provider into a government appendage.

“A private entity engaged in economically delicate work should not be subjected to invasive disclosure requirements merely because it counts the government as one client among many,” wrote Justice Eva Guzman.

“Applying the TPIA’s plain and unambiguous language, we hold that GHP is not ‘supported in whole or in part by public funds’ and thus is not a ‘governmental body’ under the TPIA.”

Justice Jeffrey Boyd offered a dissenting opinion, holding that the court’s job is to enforce the PIA, whether good or bad policy, and that GHP was supported by public funds, making Abbott right to declare it a governmental body under the act.

Haynes and Boone attorneys Lynne Liberato and Polly Graham represent GHP.

Case No. 13-0745

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