For several months, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation has been avoiding providing records to Texas Scorecard regarding their human trafficking team.
Earlier this year, Texas Scorecard sent an open records request to TDLR under the Texas Public Information Act (PIA). This request sought to unveil records including reports, goals, internal metrics, and expenditures from TDLR’s human trafficking team.
TDLR immediately began delaying the process to avoid providing the requested records.
Initially, TDLR asked for clarification to “enable” them to “properly respond” to the request. The state agency demanded the request be narrowed.
Texas Scorecard obliged by modifying the time frame of the request.
Originally, the time frame was wide—January 1, 2019 to present. However, it was changed to just include the records from the time frames of June 1, 2019 to June 1, 2020; June 1, 2021 to June 1, 2022; and June 2, 2022 to February 1, 2023.
“We request a waiver of all fees as we are a 501(c)3 non-profit news media organization, and the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of the TDLR’s public safety efforts,” reads Texas Scorecard’s request.
Once TDLR received the updated request, they opted to ignore the requested fee waiver and instead required an immediate full deposit of $1,319.94. They claimed this was for the estimated labor to locate, compile, and make ready approximately 3,000 responsive records, as well as the overhead charge.
To avoid the fees required for the documents, Texas Scorecard altered the request again, asking to instead “inspect the records requested.”
A date for virtual inspection of the desired records was then settled upon.
Days before the inspection was set to take place, TDLR requested further clarification of the request:
Please advise if you are seeking TDLR ATU inspection reports consisting of hundreds of pages, which may include records that are privileged and confidential attorney-client communications amongst TDLR legal staff and information that implicates third-party interests. Further, production of this information will likely result in a cost estimate for reviewing and making the records available for inspection and may require rescheduling the inspection date and time.
Texas Scorecard immediately clarified the request yet again, to which TDLR agreed but required a deposit of $563.40.
A week after the payment was sent, TDLR said they needed to reschedule the inspection since their open records attorney was out of the office. However, there was no response from TDLR when Texas Scorecard’s investigation team acknowledged this and said they would await a follow-up for rescheduling.
After waiting a month to hear back, Texas Scorecard reached out and requested a new date to inspect the records. TDLR then claimed they never received the payment they demanded for the inspection:
TDLR sent you an invoice on May 2, 2023, which you agreed to pay by mail on May 4, 2023. This request was closed as withdrawn by operation of law for failure to timely pay the invoice to prepare the responsive information for your virtual inspection.If you believe that your payment was sent to us, please attach a copy of the check and our endorsement to this request via the TDLR Record Center. Upon receipt of the payment information, we will confirm payment and resume processing this request for your virtual inspection. If we cannot establish that payment was remitted, your request will remain closed.
Texas Scorecard confirmed the check had been sent, but TDLR had not yet cashed the check. Images confirming payment were sent to TDLR.
TDLR Deputy General Counsel Charles Johnson informed Texas Scorecard that they had received the images of the USPS mailing receipts and said he was in contact with their finance department to search for the payment.
“Please note that the best proof of payment is a copy of the check and TDLR’s endorsement thereof, and we cannot begin work to re-open this request and begin processing it until payment is confirmed,” Johnson wrote in an email.
Days later, TDLR was able to confirm the payment and resumed working on the open records request. Two weeks after that, TDLR decided they needed “more time to fulfill the request.”
“We expect to be able to complete review of the public responsive information to you by no later than July 10, 2023, at 5:00 p.m.,” TDLR told Texas Scorecard.
Two days after requesting additional time, TDLR finished with the request. They sent few documents and hid the rest behind a previous ruling from the Texas attorney general.
“The remaining records (Anti-Trafficking Unit inspections) are confidential by law under Section 51.254 of the Texas Occupations Code and the attached previous determination issued by the Office of the Attorney General Open Records Division,” TDLR claimed.
TDLR has since continued refusing to offer any more information.