Mayor Claims Lawyers Okayed Private Meetings

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Mayor Claims Lawyers Okayed Private  Meetings But City Won’t Release Proof

City Pledges Cooperation With County Attorney’s Inquiry But Is Withholding These Key Documents

Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell has pledged on several occasions to cooperate fully with County Attorney David Escamilla’s inquiry into the Austin City Council’s possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“We’ve been advised by the city attorney that meeting between individual council members do not violate the Open Meetings Act,” Leffingwell said in a statement reported by the Austin American-Statesman January 26, “but we will cooperate fully with the County Attorney’s review.”

On January 25, theStatesman’s “City and County Beat blog” reported a statement issued by Council Member Chris Riley: “We have recently been advised by the Austin City Attorney that the practice of conducting individual meetings does not constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act.” In Fact Daily reported the same statement January 26.

The mayor repeated his pledge to cooperate with the inquiry after the city received the county attorney’s related open records requests. “We will fully comply with the public information requests, and we will cooperate fully with the county attorney’s review,” the Statesman reported February 10.

But there will be no cooperation when it comes to backing up claims made by Leffingwell and Riley that city lawyers have advised the mayor and council members that the practice of holding a series of private meetings before a council meeting is legal.

The city will not provide copies of that legal advice issued by the city’s law department, as requested by the county attorney, The Austin Bulldog, and the Austin American-Statesman, pursuant to the Texas Open Records Act.

In a letter dated February 9, Assistant City Attorney Jacqueline Cullom forwarded the open records requests of The Austin Bulldog and the Austin American-Statesman to the Texas Attorney General seeking to withhold this information. The letter argues that the information is protected within the attorney-client privilege.

The Austin Bulldog’s open records request, filed January 27, acknowledged that such legal advice would normally be exempt from disclosure under the attorney-client privilege, but noted that the mayor, in effect, waived the privilege by making public statements about that legal advice.

The same open records request also noted that it is the client’s prerogative to waive the attorney-client privilege.

“If you do indeed have legal advice that says these kinds of meetings were permitted, and are not in violation of the Open Meetings Act…then I should think you would be eager to release these records in your own defense,” the request stated.

A February 10 e-mail from Assistant City Attorney Cullom to attorney Bill Aleshire, who is representing The Austin Bulldog in this matter, states that she had not yet seen the open records requests filed by the county attorney, but states, “We will submit the same letter to the Attorney General in the next few days….”

County Attorney Escamilla, when contacted by The Austin Bulldog, declined to comment about this matter.

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. The Austin Bulldog has many investigative projects waiting to be funded. You can help bring these investigations to life by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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