Fort Worth Official resigns after boss finds backlog of open-records requests

Before he was forced to resign from his Fort Worth City Hall job for failing to properly handle open-records requests, Assistant City Attorney C. Patrick Phillips made a full confession to his superiors.

His boss, Deputy City Attorney Peter Vaky, had learned that my request was not the only one Phillips botched. Since 2008, Phillips had not properly handled 327 requests, the city reported later. For the vast majority of those, Phillips had either missed the deadline for asking the Texas attorney general to exempt the information or failed to release information as the AG’s office had ordered.

Vaky wrote to Phillips on April 1, “Patrick, if all the information I have received and set forth here is true, it is unacceptable.”

Phillips asked for a couple of days to collect his thoughts. Then, according to copies of e-mails I received last week through an open-records request, he wrote back April 4:

“They are my errors, and I take responsibility for them. … I apologize for my actions reflecting poorly on this department and this leadership.”

I had filed a request in November for e-mails from a Fort Worth police supervisor. The city asked for guidance from the attorney general. That action can delay a request for two or three months.

On Feb. 7, the attorney general’s office ordered the records released, saying in a letter that Phillips had missed a deadline to provide samples of e-mails the city wanted to keep secret. Then Phillips missed a second deadline: He never followed the attorney general’s order.

I complained to the attorney general, and seven weeks after being told to release the documents, Phillips sent them to me on a Saturday night. He also apologized.

That weekend, Phillips was writing the e-mail confession that he would send to Vaky the next Monday.

In his note, Phillips described how the backlog of 300-plus cases was a result of, in his words, miscommunication, conflicting priorities, computer difficulties and an increased workload.

“My errors were good-faith mistakes in time allocation, but they were mistakes nonetheless,” he wrote.

He suffered from “a level of stress, of which I believe you are all aware. In this environment the AG rulings became the piece that fell out because they do not carry specific statutory deadlines. I now realize that over time, I became desensitized to the problem of delaying rulings. … I fell into bad habits and the backlog grew.”

Fort Worth seeks more attorney general rulings than any Texas city of comparable size, a Star-Telegram study found last year. Critics cite the requests as a tactic to delay release of public information. The city says it needs to make sure it complies with the law.

The city told me that of 22,000 open-records requests received since October 2007, 3,300 were sent to the attorney general to see whether some could be kept secret. (Keep in mind that many such requests are for routine information such as traffic accident reports.)

A former assistant attorney general recalls Fort Worth’s reliance on rulings. Chris Schulz, now a Round Rock lawyer, said in an interview that Fort Worth’s constant reliance on rulings from Austin “seems like a waste of time.”

“There are much more efficient ways to work things out between governmental entities and requesters,” he said, adding, “Maybe the attorney general’s office shouldn’t be their first line of defense.”

If that philosophy had been followed, perhaps Phillips wouldn’t have fallen so far behind.

The attorney general’s office referred me to its open-records decision No. 684, dated Dec. 14, 2009, which offers a guide to governments about when they should seek its rulings.

The decision explains that it “is intended to encourage the prompt release of requested public information and increase the efficiency of the PIA [Public Information Act] review process by clearly identifying certain types of information that governmental bodies may withhold without the delay of requesting an attorney general decision.”

The city attorney’s office declined to comment on Phillips and his backlog. Phillips has also declined to comment.

A review of his personnel record shows he got good marks in annual job reviews, including a second-highest rating, superior, in October by then-City Attorney David Yett, who has retired.

Phillips wanted to keep his job. In his e-mail to Vaky, he came up with a strategy to eliminate the backlog: “I propose to process the rulings at a pace of at least 25 rulings per week.” At that rate, he could eliminate his backlog going back to 2008 by the end of June, he wrote.

Vaky and his boss, City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider, did not want to wait that long. Phillips was put on administrative leave the day Vaky received his e-mail explanation. The next day, Phillips wrote to Vaky, “I will take the opportunity to resign.”

The city notified the attorney general’s office of its backlog. Other city attorneys were assigned to clear Phillips’ cases as quickly as possible.

In a statement, the city told me it will do better in the future with “greater checks and balances between the City Attorney’s Office and the Records Management Office, including potential software upgrades, to ensure that multiple individuals have responsibility for tracking future public information requests.”

That, and proper supervision, should help the city follow the law.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter @DaveLieber