Fort Worth City Hall lawyer loses job over open records failure

Fort Worth has a reputation for being difficult to deal with when it comes to public records requests. A Star-Telegram examination last year showed that the city delays requests by going to the state attorney general far more than other Texas cities of its size.

I decided to test the system with a request. The results are worse than I expected. The city’s grade is an easy F, with no room for appeal.

Here’s what happened: On Nov. 11, I asked to see the e-mails and personnel record of a city police sergeant. On Nov. 29, the city asked the Texas attorney general whether it had to release the records, with a city attorney saying he believed that the records could be kept secret.

The attorney general’s office ruled Feb. 7 that the records should be released because the city failed to meet a legal deadline. The AG’s letter to the city states: “You have not submitted to this office comments explaining why the stated exceptions apply, nor have you submitted a copy or representative sample of the information requested. “Therefore, we have no choice but to order the city to release the information.”

Then I waited some more. Nothing.

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So on Feb. 28, I filed a complaint with the attorney general. A month later, the office notified Fort Worth of the complaint. Then on Saturday, April 2, at 7:16 p.m., the city attorney responsible for my request, C. Patrick Phillips, finally responded. He provided about 80 of the sergeant’s e-mails and other records, fulfilling my request.

“As for the delay in release of these records, I offer you my personal apology,” Phillips wrote in an e-mail. “Please trust that such delays are contrary to the intentions of the City Attorney’s Office, the Police Department, and the City of Fort Worth.”

Four days later, on April 6, Phillips’ employment with the city ended. One of his supervisors won’t say why.

“I can’t talk about the details of a personnel case, but he’s no longer with the city,” Deputy City Attorney Peter Vaky said. Vaky has been placed in charge of open-records management. He says he and new City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider are “taking steps to make sure that will never happen again.”

He declined to talk about what happened in my case, but he said there is no current backlog of requests in the open-records office.

Reached Friday, Phillips said he couldn’t comment. “Dealing with anything having to do remotely with a former client is not anything I can talk about,” he said. Phillips, 33, had worked in the city attorney’s office for four years.

Critics have said that the city relies on attorney general opinions on some requests to delay releasing the information. The city denies that.

In my test case, I requested information that had caused the city trouble once before. A Fort Worth police officer had sought the e-mails of the same police sergeant and couldn’t get them.

A year ago, when I interviewed Phillips about the matter, he told me that the officer had received all the available information. He explained that the e-mails probably no longer existed. “We just don’t have it,” Phillips told me last year.

Fetching the e-mails from a backup server would be difficult and unnecessary, the attorney general’s office had ruled. But the 80 e-mails that I received included ones that Phillips said the city didn’t have.

I checked last week with the officer who requested those records more than two years ago, and he still hasn’t received them.

Vaky declined to comment, saying he wasn’t familiar with what Phillips had done or said or why the e-mails had suddenly become available.

Last year, Phillips told me, “We know the process is ugly. … We would like it to get better.”

My test case shows that didn’t happen. But the city says it is now on top of it. We’ll see.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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