We have a fear of intellectuals in public life in Texas and Rick Perry has gone to great lengths to hide a keen and well-developed mind. He’s a smart guy. “He’s smarter than Bush,” said a high-ranking Democrat recently who dealt with both of the last two occupants of the Governor’s Mansion and while that may seem like faint praise, being smarter than the guy who “managed” the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and brought us the invasion of Iraq—it does mean Perry is smart enough to be president. A case in point, illustrating his intelligence, has just arisen. He’s shown himself to be not only smart but also clever which can be something different altogether.
Early last year, according to Texas State Librarian Mark Smith whose responsibilities include the State Archives, then-Gov. Perry’s office approached the State Library about the disposition of his papers after a record-shattering fourteen years in the Big House. You may think gubernatorial papers or the papers of any politician leaving office are not a big deal but, much as Hillary Clinton recently learned regarding her missing State Department email, government records can be serious business and especially in the Lone Star State. In the turbulent history of the former Republic a brief war was fought over government records—and more recently the State Archives went through an ugly episode with W who walked away with his papers when he left for D.C. According to folks working in the archives at the time, George W. Bush’s General Counsel, future U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the state’s record keepers that Bush considered the papers “his” and acted accordingly. Unfortunately as with many of W’s other judgments this one also proved to be wrong—something Rick Perry knew when he approached the State Library about his own records because as Bush’s successor he received the attorney general’s opinion that declared what archivists knew all along: the papers of the governor, whoever that governor may be, belong to the State of Texas.
Theoretically, the contents of Rick Perry’s archive should be more inflammatory than W’s for a number of reasons, first being length of tenure: Bush was in office in Texas only six years while Perry has a much longer incumbency and two years before that as lieutenant governor. So his exposure is greater. Second is the nature of the two men themselves. Bush always fancied himself in a chairman of the board role, the final “decider” based upon advanced judgment skills, while Perry has been a very hands-on CEO-type not afraid to pull the strings himself or get his hands dirty. Also Perry, as the Chinese say, presided over a period of “interesting times” in Texas while W’s interesting times came mostly in D.C. For Rick Perry, for example, there’s the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Bush signed off on executions at a faster rate (and, in perhaps the lone story to have legs that emerged from W’s state archives, there were the infamous “execution memos” prepared by Bush’s advisors that later became public) but it is Perry’s misfortune—and Mr. Willingham’s—that the executed man appears not to have committed the crime he was sent to death for—indeed, there may have been no crime at all. Then there were Gov. Perry’s extensive economic endeavors that all tended to have the effect of more dollars in his campaign account which we lump together here in a single omnibus file, “Texas Enterprise Fund.” Unlike George W. Bush whose family connections produced money for the campaign once it was established that W was a credible candidate, Rick Perry has always had to work to pay for his ambition. Which potentially leaves a trail in the records of his administration—favors done—quids for quos—that sort of thing.
Liberals like to call Rick Perry an opportunist but that may be a misnomer in our long-term now ex-governor’s case. Not to be literary or anything, not to cite a book instead of a movie—the kind of allusion that often makes Texans uncomfortable unless the book is the Bible—but in the Great Gatsby the author described the hero as having “a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and that, not to be deep or anything, is Rick’s history in office, or offices. Better than his contemporaries he’s always seen what the possibilities are and reached for them. His extraordinary success reaching for the brass ring or the next rung of the ladder has led to more reaching still. He wears glasses today because it makes him look more studious to a national audience, sure—but also because he wants to see what’s available around him. Someone, another high-ranking Democrat who was once a Perry ally in the Texas House of Representatives but not a fan, recalled the young representative wearing braces back in the day: he wanted a better bite but he also needed to smile more as he made a move to statewide office. A good metaphor for Perry’s time in office comes from his modest youth in Paint Creek where his parents were definitely not affluent—and is completely fictional but nonetheless useful in understanding their son Rick. Young Ricky is walking down Paint Creek’s main street and sees a dollar bill on the ground. Any kid, especially a poor kid—any of us in fact, child or adult—would instinctively bend over to pick the money up. The difference with young Rick, and why D’s like to call him an opportunist, is that Perry might also have looked around for the wallet it came from. That’s the “heightened sensitivity” to opportunity that has been the hallmark of Perry’s career and is not opportunism at all. It’s also what he’s done regarding the archives of his stay in the Governor’s Mansion. After all his time as our leader, many of us feel we “know” Rick Perry. Some of what follows cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt but is very likely the case with the man whom we have learned to love or hate, as the case may be.
So, he approached the Texas State Library and Archives Commission about his gubernatorial records. The decision was made to put them, as we now say, “in the cloud.” In the cloud, for the uninitiated, simply means in a scanned or digital format instead of paper copies, hosted by a server instead of kept in cardboard boxes in a vault. Importantly in this case not a state-owned server but Amazon’s “government cloud” which will cost the state a few bucks but is considered safe and, most important in the context of this discussion, confidential. One of the Perry camp’s only reservations was that the servers not be located in a foreign country and that his national security-like deliberations and communications with the federal alphabet agencies remain secret. So far, so good. Speaking of location, Perry could have chosen to send his files to his alma mater Texas A&M but he seems to be reaching these days for a wider audience than Aggies, recently declining also to have a building named after him on the A&M campus. The cloud whether it belongs to Amazon or anyone else actually plays to one of Perry’s strengths. He’s got presence and good looks.
His records at last count are a couple of thousand square feet of paper in boxes and about 7 terabytes of data total (each terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes and is called, within the tech community, a “waffle” or a “whole fuckin’ lotta” data) and of the 7 about 6.5 are various media like film, digitized photos, in other words Rick Perry standing tall and being photogenic. What’s not for an ex-governor to like? This piece of the Perry archive equation is completely legitimate—it’s the future, so we are told—something accessible on the web and including a lot of video: what’s more compelling, after all, an archive that includes a copy of a speech or one in which a visitor can push a button on a computer at home and hear the speech and watch it delivered? For practical purposes of course this could turn out to be like a 14-year-long movie starring Rick Perry with a cast of millions but how is that any different from what’s offered at LBJ’s tomb on the University of Texas campus, co-starring the North Vietnamese Army and Martin Luther King, or the Bush repositories in Dallas and in College Station? The difference is mostly format—paper—versus film. According to Texas State Archivist Jelain Chubb within a year or two someone sitting at home will be able to push that button on the State Archives website and watch the Perry administration unfold or at least as it was recorded unfolding by his administration. That’s good news for him because the timing may coincide, more or less, with his run for president, if he’s still a contender at that point. The issue as always is what’s in an archive and what isn’t. Ask Hillary Clinton. Papers get lost, data gets degraded, computer scientists talk about “GIGO”—garbage-in, garbage-out—the principle that a computer’s output can be no better than its input but in the case of Rick Perry’s records we’re left with a probable different axiom, “NINO,” for nothing-in, nothing-out.
Perry’s people scanned and classified many documents before shipping them to the archives and Governor’s Office computers were “wiped in order to give the new administration a clean slate,” so we are told, and an unofficial presumption, knowing Rick Perry as we do, is that not everything actually emerged in digital format or on paper from the Governor’s Office—which is, by the way, a stone’s throw from the State Archives. Some documentation may have gotten lost along the way. Oh well. In fact, notes of meetings between the archives staff and the governor’s representatives show that early last year Perry’s people began deciding what would be archival and what would not, in other words they themselves making the decision (with the help of the Governor Office’s software named “Archie”) what would be turned over and what would not. Ms. Chubb doesn't speak to that question directly, that’s not her job—what may or may not have been “lost” or not transferred in other words—instead she answers a different but similar question: “Regardless of whether it’s the governor’s office or any office of state government,” said Chubb, who was previously state archivist in Ohio, “all the Archives has is . . . what we’ve been given,” and what officials attest to when they hand over records. She also says that neither an e-archive nor a paper record is intrinsically superior in so far as the issue is integrity of the information. Both formats have strengths and weaknesses. The issue is how to store data, in this case archival data, and boxes of paper are apparently no longer the way to go. The State Data Center even with backups and redundancies built-in is not a useful option either because its servers, pressed for space, will eventually have to “compress” the files, something which is not appropriate for important documents. Unlike past administrations a good deal of Perry’s record was “born digital,” in other words never existed in any other format and it makes no sense to convert it to hard copy now. There are a few indications that still raise one’s index of suspicion, however.
Perry’s office was insistent that all matters regarding his papers be completely resolved before he left office and that no documents “from the Perry world,” as his aides put it, be left in the Greg Abbott world. “They will be sending Perry’s records to the Archives at the end of term regardless of whether it matches their schedule; Perry’s administration wants to control Perry’s papers and doesn’t want to leave anything to the next administration to transfer.” That comes from notes of the negotiations over the transfer. Perry was also uncomfortable with outsiders scanning any of his docs and, in what may be a major admission, the governor’s clerks noted that the Texas Public Information Act doesn’t address “sensitive security information,” but Perry’s office believed he had that kind of material in his files, and will doubtless still receive exemptions on its release even though there's no legal exemption codified in law. Otherwise, what Perry’s people did “classifying” may just have been good practice, like cleaning a house completely before moving out, deciding what to keep, what to leave and what to throw out, but there could be other reasons as well. After 14 years we feel we know Rick, the good, the bad and the expedient, and with all politicians that can sometimes include the dodgy. So, too, the state library commission that controls the Texas archives is a different body than the one that stood up to Gov. Bush. “We love this governor,” said a library commission member last year, speaking of Perry without a trace of irony. There also appears to be a fear factor involving any discussion of the still-powerful former Big Man of the state. Andrew Dillon, Dean of the highly-regarded School of Information at the University of Texas and former president of the American Society of Information Technology which is at the center of the electronic archive debate, refused recently even to discuss the issue of the state’s approach to e-archives, which would be tantamount to discussing R.P.’s legacy and can still be a touchy subject in Austin. One person who would talk though is Margaret Hedstrom, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and whose theoretical work on electronic records was cited by the Texas State Archives as background to the state's own approach to the Perry papers.
She’s gung ho for digital.
“There are trade-offs between physical and digital preservation and different risks involved. The technologies and methodologies of digital preservation are evolving rapidly and improving greatly in terms of performance. One can make a complete replica of a digital archive at very low cost,” she wrote in a recent email. “I don’t think that the risks to transparency are related to the form of the documents,” she added, an opinion echoed by State Archivist Chubb, who noted that Texas was behind other states in digitalization until the Perry initiative and that fears about transparency shouldn’t hinder going forward.
“Possible implications for transparency,” Prof. Hedstrom continued, include that “it might be easier to delete or destroy digital records—inadvertently or intentionally, but systems can be designed to make it harder to do that with digital records than with paper.” She said she does not understand how the State of Texas can be becoming more restrictive about open records than in the past, however. “Some people have argued that with all the pressure for open records, officials just resort to back rooms, phone conversations, and off the record comments. This argument has been around at least since the post-Watergate reforms, and it would be worth analyzing in terms of behavior.” Spoken like a true scientist, in this case an information scientist. The State Archives are actually already processing open records requests for the Perry archives and, as a kind of experiment, a recent response to a request for disclosure is instructive. The request for any email sent by Perry in his last month in office yielded zero—nada—nichts—not a line or word. A second test was even more revealing: No Perry email from the three months prior to his exit from office—an archive official said that the former governor’s assistants were quizzed about possible missing messages and the response was that Perry “very seldom used” email. NINO, in other words, nothing-in, nothing-out, believe what you will.
A year or so ago Texas Tribune reporter Reeve Hamilton somehow got his hands on a Perry email message during the governor’s epic struggle with the University of Texas but don’t expect you’ll find anything similar in what Rick Perry has turned over to the State Archives. The issues are quite different regarding the Perry archives today than they were during W’s departure from the Mansion but can generally be filed under the heading “Transparency.” W didn’t have to scrub his records because he thought he was taking them with him. He didn’t have to decide what to scan or get rid of because there was no cloud at the time. He didn’t have an email account when he was in Austin, per archivists, but also the concerns of the state’s records keepers themselves were different back in that day. At the time of the battle for W’s papers which was won by the public, by the way, archivists were already saying the war was lost. Perry was in office for a year or two at that point and it had been State Archives policy up until then that any retired document that arrived for safekeeping was open to public inspection. But it was soon noted, after the decision that President Bush had to return “his” papers to the state, that under Bush, Perry and increasingly under the then-new Attorney General Greg Abbott, state government had begun a system of deciding that certain records were “classified” even outside the bounds of the normal exemptions of the Public Information Act and the “classified” designation carried over into the archives. The powers-that-be were different then and prior openness had been enforced largely by one man, the former AG and now senior U.S. Senator from Texas, John Cornyn, a Bush ally who nonetheless ruled that the papers were not W’s. Cornyn moved on and so did disclosure practice. There have been ups and downs since then but the spiral has been mostly down. A lot of people are responsible including a lazy public but if you had to name only two individuals, they would be the incumbent governor and the immediate past occupant of the Mansion. If you had to blame only one person it would be the former AG who is now the new governor.
Interesting to note that Republicans, who claim to distrust government most, have been most to blame for the abuse of transparency in Austin on a state government level, apparently because they are in power. It’s actually a bipartisan issue. Locally, the Democratic-controlled Austin city government is the biggest perp—especially as regards withholding email, and local Democratic prosecutors have repeatedly ignored the bad practice. The University of Texas at Austin whose leadership claims to be liberal and enlightened is another prominent wrongdoer on the open records front. It is possible to conceive of the same result at the Capitol however if the parties were reversed, Democrats hiding records and Republicans howling, and to understand how much the pendulum has swung away from transparency, whatever the party in power, consider the case of capital punishment. State law originally enshrined 75 years as the period of time that medical documents related to an execution would remain closed. But last year AG Greg Abbott decided after a request for an opinion by the State Archives that a potentially revealing aspect of the rush to execute in Texas—the reports of psychiatrists employed by the state, doctors of death as they are called—will still be kept closed even after 75 years, as a kind of HIPPA information, even though these particular “patients,” after receiving the ultimate cure by the state, are long past caring about the confidentiality of their medical record. The present issue is email. It’s never in the interests of a leader to be too open about anything written in office, either before or after leaving office. In the case of Rick Perry for example, anything good to say about his actions in the Governor’s Mansion was probably publicized by his press office at the time. All that remains in his files now is potentially risky business.
Nonetheless, a game-changer has suddenly appeared in the state’s transparency debate. He’s a former sinner—a former miscreant of public policy who has probably done the most in recent years to undermine Texas’s record of open government. His online handle is “GA,” like his predecessor's “RP,” and he just released his first email messages from office. In that alone, he’s taken a big step away from his predecessor.
But as is often the case when big changes happen, someone other than the game-changer him or herself is paying for the transition in practice. In this case it’s a woman, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Shame, it seems, like official misconduct, is all about equal opportunity.
To be thrown under the bus by history has a certain cachet—what the French call a certain je-ne-sais-quoi—like being on the first airplane to crash or having a deck-class seat on the Titanic. Misfortune can be fortunate if it makes you special or you’re being bent over for a good cause. Unfortunately in this instance, being the subject of uncomplimentary email by the Office of the Governor of Texas, the prestige is nothing like falling at the Alamo, a fate that many diehard Texans might actually enjoy but probably better than being swept out to see by a hurricane in the Gulf. Being run over as a new governor tries to get ahead of his policy curve may still be worth a footnote in the Handbook of Texas, people read your name in a historical document and are impressed—for the wrong reason. That's the fate of the Hon. Lois Kolkhorst, member of the Texas Senate.
Kolkhorst is a Republican first-termer from Brenham where she was a longtime and very popular state rep. It was Sen. Kolkhorst’s bad luck recently to be the only substantive personal subject of an email release by Gov. Abbott, after his first month in office. Although Rick Perry and Greg Abbott were allies, especially the closer they came to the elections last year that saw Perry move out of the Governor’s Mansion and Abbott move in, Texas’s new leader has since made a point of distancing himself from his predecessor on the issue of transparency. While seeing a Perry email was like getting a view of a snow leopard, or unicorn, Abbott has made—according to his open records director—only the standard redactions of telephone numbers, social security numbers and email addresses in what’s just been released. The rest is now out there, in the public domain. The result is a couple of hundred pages of messages to and from the new governor showing that the “danger” of open government is not necessarily for those whose email is made public. The messages also do what Gov. Perry could have done for himself, showing a human side of the Big Man which this release does for Abbott—together with some collateral damage to a third party, dropping a bomb mistakenly, or right on target, on the Little Lady from Brenham.
“You know how Lois Kolkhorst wanted to meet with me,” Gov. Abbott wrote after taking office, as the new legislative session began, “I think about some river related appointments. What if we use this as one of our opportunities to swing by someone’s office? I have some free time tomorrow that I could swing by for an unannounced visit. Of course we would want her to be there.” So wrote the governor on February 8 of this year, a month after former Judge Abbott became Texas’s 48th chief executive.
On the surface, seems like an innocent enough message, doesn’t it, a simple proposal on the part of the governor to visit the office of a legislator, but there’s a backstory or a couple of backstories that are pertinent. One is alluded to in other email also released that this governor who gets around in a wheelchair needs to show himself to be mobile, not isolated in his Capitol offices by a physical handicap. Abbott only “came out” really as a disabled person in his gubernatorial campaign, embracing his handicap so to speak which, surprise, humanized him for many voters. So, if only for that reason “swinging by” Sen. Kolkhorst’s office was important. So far so good, still pretty much ordinary legislative business. Then, enter his aides who discussed the idea. They did what aides are supposed to do post-Machiavelli, tell what the consequences really are of even the smallest gestures of the leader of a big important state. Someone on Abbott’s staff mentions that Kolkhorst who faced a Tea Party candidate in a nasty and expensive special election to be senator already owes the governor a lot for his support, so maybe if he’s going to visit anyone he should go see someone whom he needs something from, not someone who’s indebted to him. A personal visit from the governor to a senator’s office is obviously a plum so the deliberations were about “swinging by” somebody else—which is how the system of favor works—and also “swinging by” a Democrat (Laredo’s Judith Zaffirini) to make an appearance of bipartisanship which is also how the system works. Governor Abbott himself is silent at this part of the deliberations and there are just ruminations by staff. But there’s a further clue to the importance of the exchange when an aide mentions that the appointments the senator wants made, to a river authority, are intended to help rice farmers in Kolkhorst’s district who use a lot of water and are in jeopardy of losing rights to the wet stuff in dry times. Next somebody drops the D-bomb on the lady, “d” as in “difficult,” in fact “notoriously difficult,” talking about the senator’s personality. That’s when it really gets interesting. A man calling a powerful woman “notoriously difficult” is pretty charged language today. The same thing has been said in fact of the Democratic senator whom Gov. Abbott was also going to visit, Judith Zaffirini, that she’s “difficult,” and probably said at one time or another of most women in power. If you want to disrespect a man you can just say he’s a jerk or an asshole, or more recently a douche—as in douche bag, origin unknown in this context—and if he has reached a certain level of influence or prestige you can say he has been “corrupted by power,” but the “difficult” part is excused or excusable because guys are allowed to be difficult but not women who must remain agreeable and, on some level, pleasant. Women are “difficult” first, probably somewhere lower on the problematic scale than guys, maybe even “notoriously difficult” and only then, but a lot sooner than male colleagues, “corrupted by power.” “Bitch” makes a few appearances too. Labels like these are one of the few fast tracks for women on the road to the top. Why Abbott’s release is important is not for the messages themselves or the disparaging portrait of a state lawmaker, whether true or not—and apparently the description is at least in part true of Lois Kolkhorst. Her manner has evolved the longer she’s been in office and, frankly, she’s begun to piss off people from both parties or at least that’s what the guys say. The release of information is important because of public policy. It’s why transparency matters and why what we didn’t get from Rick Perry in office and are almost certainly not going to get from his collected papers, scanned to the cloud or on hard copy, is also important. It’s history, “living history,” as Hillary Clinton calls it in her book and she should know since she’s considered difficult too.
One of the most detailed messages released from the new governor’s office is from Abbott’s advisor, former Bush family consigliere David Carney who appears to be the most frequent correspondent of the new Big Man in Texas. Carney hits all the major points in explaining why Sen. Kolkhorst’s office is the wrong venue for the governor’s premier visit in the Capitol. In fact, he pretty neatly rips her a new one: “First of all, I think it’s a great idea for you to start going to see Members in their offices,” Carney tells the governor, doing what advisors do, hitting the bottom line, hard. “As RA [Deputy Chief of Staff Robert Allen] said, anytime you can be seen moving around the Capitol, it’s a good thing. My only reservation with pulling the trigger tomorrow is that it’s Kolkhorst. No Senator owes you more than her, so we already have some political capital with Kolkhorst. She’s also notoriously difficult, so I’d like to get Luis’ [appointments director Luis Saenz] meeting with her over with, and figure out her agenda before we send you into a meeting with her. So, while I love this idea and am all for you going to Members’ offices, my recommendation would be for us to wait for the next legislator meeting request before we pull the trigger on this initiative.” With these few sentences Mr. Carney has actually already pulled a trigger—on the senator in question.
When Lois Kolkhorst was a state representative she was unbeatable. Even Democrats say that the “Lady from Brenham” could do no wrong in her home district, centered in Washington County, between Austin and Houston. In recent years however Democrats believe she’s gone from being a fiscal conservative who was open-minded on social issues to being hard right on almost all issues including women’s health, although as one prominent D in her district mentioned, even on social issues she may have swung right because that’s what Washington County voters really want. Representing District 13 for 14 years her most important business constituency was probably Blue Bell Creameries, a large employer, like the state mental institution in Brenham whose water she also carried. As senator she’s now playing in a whole different ballgame, in a whole different league, with different rules and different scoring. Her senatorial district goes all the way from Central Texas to the Gulf Coast. It’s a hard to remain a “local girl” in a political subdivision bigger than some countries. The rice farmers who were mentioned by the governor’s staff were already very demanding and are now more so—a very strong lobbying group, as is anyone who tills the soil in Texas—and they’re involved in a long-running and sometimes bitter struggle with the City of Austin for water, an issue that grows in importance in the Southwest every day. Both the city and the farmers are customers of the legendary Lower Colorado River Authority that is responsible for doling out limited supplies during what may soon be the drought of record in Texas. Lois Kolkhorst has found herself in the middle of two of the biggest traditional fights in the state: urban interests (Austin) versus rural (farmers)—and water. It’s either an opportunity for her or a potentially career-ending policy hole. The governor’s invitation to “swing by” Kolkhorst’s office also helps explain the description of her as “difficult.” Even before her victory in the Senate race she appeared before the LCRA board, in late 2013, and according to male sources “stormed out” of the meeting because she wasn’t getting what she wanted for rice growers. Last year she is said to have had another Bad Girl performance at the state environmental commission which must approve any changes by LCRA to the system of water allocation and presently considers farmer’s crops secondary in importance to drinking needs. She wants the governor, in other words, to make appointments to the LCRA board who will be more receptive to agriculture than to the urban water needs of LCRA’s biggest customer, the City of Austin.
For simplicity’s sake LCRA’s membership can be divided into “upstream” clients like Austin, generally favoring urban water needs and electricity generation, and downstream folks who include rice farmers and some possible environmental interests around Matagorda Bay, including crabbers. To be unkind, it’s the Hill Country against the flatlanders. Kolkhorst represents the latter. In this context “difficult” is in the eye of the beholder. In all fairness to the governor’s staff, even before the email Kolkhorst already had "a reputation," in other words being demanding, much as a powerful male officeholder might have a reputation for wanting things his way. But if she’s more difficult now it may be because she’s in a more difficult position. Her senatorial district goes way beyond Brenham where she grew up and is known and loved and now includes even more farmers and also suburban Houston where she faces the real risk of having her right flank attacked as weak by an opponent, a la the Tea Party that she already tangled with. For the present, Kolkhorst is trying to make one important constituency happy. She submitted a bill this session to “study” restructuring the LCRA board, as one City of Austin representative put it, “to turn LCRA into an agricultural authority,” or more aptly, a river authority with an agricultural majority. If you remember your U.S. history back in the day when President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with an uncooperative Supreme Court he simply expanded the size of the court from 7 to 9 seats, the two new ones filled with his own men, in order to get the decisions he wanted. That’s what Sen. Kolkhorst is trying to do too. In any case, with a little background that’s what the governor’s email tells us. Water is a critical issue and transparency is important to understanding it: important not just because a legislator got disrespected by the governor’s staff, which is juicy for the press, but because of public policy. In only a handful of messages by the governor and his staff we have the State of Texas encapsulated: Democrats vs. Republicans, rural versus urban, “upstream” versus “downstream,” water, power and now powerful women who are not quite powerful enough to get what they want. Lois Kolkhorst got bent over in the process of providing us focus but that’s life at the Capitol. That’s what disclosure gives the public, an insight into how government really works. And that’s, incidentally, what Rick Perry doesn’t want you to know.
The differences between W, Perry and Abbott regarding transparency are in part generational. About five years in age separates each man from the other and it’s a revealing split for their attitudes toward technology and openness. W, the oldest of the three, did not have email as governor or so we are told. The man in the middle Rick Perry had email and used it but feared the danger of disclosure: by the end of his term he had a policy of erasing all messages after seven days if not sooner. Abbott, the youngest, may fear disclosure as well—he’d be a fool not to—but he’s also comfortable enough with the technology to try to exploit it. Among Abbott’s released messages is one in which Perry’s seven-day email retention schedule is criticized in contrast to the brand-new thirty-day retention system for his successor. This change was occurring, it’s important to note, before Hillary got in email trouble and before the Associated Press and Washington Post went off on the current White House’s obsessive image control policies that don’t let much light shine on the Obama administration, either. “Any nod toward more transparency is appreciated by the press,” the new governor wrote. “We’ve said nothing about it and this is the first I’ve heard about it [apparently referring to his own 30-day retention schedule.] It seems like a way to get a positive story if we can call a reporter about it.”
The biggest single issue discussed in the Abbott email drop is actually how to channel public interest from American Sniper Chris Kyle’s memorial as a Texan. Page after page of messages—which point to the role of symbols and symbolism in a politician’s life. There was no legislation really involved, nothing Abbott needed to “do” except honor Kyle and his wife as the movie made great box office, and for the governor this meant a speech which brings to the forefront another difference between Perry and Abbott: Rick Perry was very much a governor for whom his physical image was important while Abbott is more about words. He’s a writer in fact, as are most judges and former judges, who have crafted opinions. There’s something almost charming about Abbott’s vulnerability as he hands in an overly-long American Sniper speech and fears that a lot of people are about to take turns cutting it. (There’s also some interesting input from his speech coach, one Sarah Gershman of D.C., about how to modulate his voice when giving another important talk, apparently after she has listened to a recording of him practicing it: “You can be a little angrier in the transportation section,” she tells him. “’To allow open carry’ could be a little louder,” and “Loud for ‘we will secure our border.’”) One of Perry’s greatest strengths as governor, in contrast, was obviously his image in person and on screen. He looked the part. You may recall a female senator’s comment a few years ago that Perry looks good in jeans. People who claim to be in a position to know also say he packs a big pistol—he’s a Big Man in every sense of the word, in a macho state, part of his image being his sexual presence and power, standing tall for Texas, and that's why he’s going visual in his archives. Those qualities translate well. But even though his message was always clear as governor he wasn’t always articulate voicing it. You could turn off the sound on a Perry press conference and come away with pretty much the same message just watching his facial expressions and body language, really it’s hard to remember anything memorable he said in office except maybe his most famous line, “Adios, mofo,” to a television news crew a few years ago. An equally revealing commentary was unleashed on a state trooper who made a traffic stop on Perry’s car when he was lieutenant governor, although it’s unlikely either of those utterances will end up in his proposed online archive. Perry is a man of few words, at least publicly. Words are mostly what Abbott is about. That makes seeing his email even more crucial.
Ideally, the Abbott administration will be all about words, which doesn’t mean it will be inconsequential. Greg Abbott did a lot of damage in his last year or so as attorney general through opinions curtailing transparency, so the idea that words don’t have meaning south of the Red River—only actions count—is the usual Texas b.s., which can still be fun to hear in less critical contexts than open government. For example, among his last efforts to gut public access to information then-Attorney General Abbott increased restrictions on disclosure of the University of Texas’s various healthcare endeavors, including ties to Big Pharma in the context of the appointment of the new UT Medical School dean whose previous job, prior to arriving in the World Capital of Live Music, was leading UC’s medical business efforts in San Francisco, especially with drugmaker Genentech—not “teaching neurology” like the new dean tells Texas audiences. He’s here to make money, and a lot of it, for UT, for Big Pharma and for the politicians who support it and presumably include Greg Abbott. It’s now practically impossible to get any disclosure about UT’s moves towards Big Medicine at any of its campuses or its biotech business plans in Austin. (See prior posting, “Choosing Dean Johnston.”) Not to be outdone in restricting release of information, but this time on the security front, new AG Ken Paxton just ruled that the names of Capitol police officers are confidential and can be withheld from the public under an obscure “staffing” exemption, meaning the state now employs secret police, literally. The mind boggles, literally. In any case, as regards the two Big Men in Texas, the present and former governors, the most stark difference between Perry and Abbott is actually not transparency but the aforementioned vulnerability. Rick Perry’s greatest weakness has been his lack of weakness. Although he’s been very smart and capable in office he’s been easy to demonize because it’s so hard to connect with him on a personal level. Even when he suffered back troubles a few years ago, instead of exploiting or even explaining the episode to make him look like an ordinary human being, he tried to act as if back pain was a state secret. The eyeglasses help not to make him look intellectual, as libs argue, but human which is a more basic need of his presidential campaign. Abbott suffered a traumatic accident years ago that makes him somehow more acceptable as an ordinary guy even though he has a certain acquired reserve as a former Supreme Court justice. Vulnerability—the fact that something bad happened to him or her, as it can happen to you or me—actually looks good on a politician, up to a point. But how vulnerable Greg Abbott actually is, well, that’s open to debate. Gov. Abbott has developed some pretty effective defense mechanisms as a politician. For example he thinks twice—or his people think twice for him—about going to a legislator’s office where there might be danger lurking. Just ask Lois Kolkhorst.
One theory put forward by Kolkhorst’s supporters is that the new governor can be just as calculating as Rick Perry ever was: that, in fact, it was no accident her name came up as part of the first substantive email drop by a Texas leader. “Some in state government have tried to spread misinformation about Senator Kolkhorst in the recent senate election and they were discredited,” said one of her principal defenders. This theory suggests something like campaign dirty tricks but calls to mind the CIA more than the Tea Party: Suppose the email drop, despite the Governor’s Office claim, is not complete. Suppose in fact Greg Abbott is not telling the whole truth about how transparent he has been which is—all due respect to the governor—pretty likely. He may not have included, for example, every single email he sent or those sent or received on a private account which is impossible to judge since his email address was redacted in the public release. Suppose the messages he wrote were culled for the most favorable or, equally likely, the least damaging, and those were set aside to be given out in response to an open records request. Still, the press isn’t dumb or not that dumb so there needed to be some red meat in the release, something embarrassing if not to the governor than at least to somebody in the Republican Party. (Doing a Democrat dirty wouldn’t have helped at all, it would have just raised suspicions about the authenticity of the messages.) If you’re a governor’s aide, who do you chose to bend over? The calculus would probably be pretty similar to deciding whose office to—or not to—visit. If Sen. Kolkhorst owes the governor something, as Abbott’s aides believe, and if she has been “difficult” in the past, well, why not her? After pushing her under the wheels of the bus, after all, the governor can still be the first responder, the first person to come to her rescue: he can eventually appoint whom she wants to the LCRA board and screw Democratic-controlled Austin in the process, or even sign her eventual bill reforming the LCRA. Although that’s no certainty: Austin has a $100 billion economy now and those tech companies in town use water too. The old conservative agricultural interests the Republicans have traditionally bowed to may have less pull for the majority party in a high-tech world. In any case, if Gov. Abbott is as clever as Gov. Perry was, the next step is clear. He will begin writing email messages that he knows are probably going to be the subject of open records requests, seeding his correspondence with material that is not off the cuff but that he knows from the start will be seen by reporters. That would not really be “transparency” writ large—it is not quite disinformation although it's close—yet it’s still a fair practice in a largely unfair game and may be better than no disclosure at all. Reading a politician’s email will become like watching the Red Army parade on May Day in Moscow used to be for Western experts on the Kremlin: seeing an outward manifestation of a secret process, knowing you’re being misled but still trying to figure out what it all means. Reading between the lines, literally.
Rick Perry did not choose that route. He didn’t even choose fake openness that he could exploit. Still, an archive that is visual like a film or an extended video of the The Man from Paint Creek if done properly can offset any potential downside. Or at least that’s apparently the former governor’s calculus. Key to that strategy is the cloud and Preservica software rented by the State of Texas from a British company at a cool 40K a year that will allow the Perry e-archive to be queried by users online. According to State Archivist Chubb when the system is up and running in a year or two, “You can be sitting at home and say, ‘I wonder what, for example, [Perry chief of staff] Kathy Walt was doing on, say, April 2, 2003?” and Preservica will query the e-archive and, depending on what was input, answer with documents or film or whatever. Just don’t expect email. State archivists say that a search of Perry’s records for the last months of his administration, for instance, revealed only two email messages by Ms. Walt, one concerning a thank you proclamation for a couple of the governor’s longtime bodyguards and another about the retirement of a longtime state bureaucrat, hardly representative of the work of the chief of staff of a big state. NINO, in other words. LCRA, where Kathy Walt coincidentally worked as an $18,000 a month lobbyist in between her stints running Gov. Perry’s office, said it has more email from her but is trying to avoid release and is also resisting release of email by LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson who was one of Gov. Perry’s secretaries of state and is still his BFF. Regarding the absence of email in Perry’s archive, the word “scrubbed” comes to mind but if true, Rick Perry is not the only one who’s guilty of violating the Public Information Act. In fact, if you’re breaking the email law in Texas, just take a number and stand in line. You have plenty of company.
Perhaps the most egregious example of a violation in the capital city actually comes from local government, specifically some of the same people who have been most critical of Perry’s administration and his record on transparency. Several months ago the City of Austin, which bills itself as “The City Too Laidback to Hate”—but which has suddenly found itself in the spotlight for massive income inequality, relentless gentrification and a police force that has an unnerving habit of killing unarmed black people (see prior posting, “They Shoot Niggers, Don’t They?”)—came up with a bad idea. The city decided to institute a “Gold Card” for library borrowers, purchasable for a few hundred dollars, that would give those wealthy enough to pay for special access first dibs on new books and library services. (Presumably the next step would have been concierge police services or deluxe EMS response, that is, a wide range of enhanced city services at a price.) When word got out and an open records request was made for email related to the plan, the city attorney reported back that there were “no responsive documents.” But the same State Library which includes the archives had email from the city in which Austin officials had broached the idea of the Gold Card and been warned by the state that Texas regs require all borrowers to be treated equally and any effort to sell better municipal service to the wealthy would result in the Austin Public Library losing accreditation and thus losing prestige and grant money. Travis County prosecutors, informed of the city’s “missing” email, were first breathing hard and looking predatory but then quietly swept the matter under the rug even though the city had also recently been busted cheating on the Open Meetings Act. The reason is that the prosecutors in Austin are Democrats, as was the entire city council at the time, and indicting D’s in a Republican-dominated state is considered hunting an endangered species.
Most of the time the violation is less blatant. A recent request sent to new Attorney General Paxton for old Attorney General Abbott’s email, from Abbott’s last months in office, revealed one message from the old AG about a speech he was writing and a handful of weekly email updates to staff that read like campaign brochures, a kind of spam to all his employees about what a great job his office was doing. That’s it. It’s helpful to note just how reluctant state officials are to give up their email even if it’s the law and, specifically, one with criminal penalties. Like, dude, nobody is worried because there's no enforcement and no risk. For public officials email is becoming, a comedian mentioned recently, like sex: everyone does it but everyone lies about how much, how often and with who. President-designate of the University of Texas Greg Fenves just replied to an open records request that he has no email from 2014 (while serving as UT’s number two, the provost) in which race or discrimination are mentioned. Let’s consider that response for a moment. How likely is it that the number two official of the second most important public university in the United States did not mention race on campus in a society in which race is on everyone’s lips everyday, with race in education second only to race in law enforcement as a theme? Please. A second request to Dr. Fenves for all his email for the first few months of this year was answered by UT’s lawyers as being unnecessarily vague. What’s not to understand about “all”? The university eventually altered its response and said there were actually race-related emails that “were initially overlooked during a recent software migration,” and asked, if UT provided those missing email messages, could the university skip the request for Fenves’ electronic correspondence from this year? Indeed, Dr. Fenves’s response seems particularly unhelpful since UT was busted just a few months ago for obstructing responses to sensitive open records requests, and that puts the new UT president in the unique position of already lying about his email before he even takes the top job. Another example is more telling: The latest Bush to enter Texas politics, Land Commissioner George P. Bush just responded to a request for his General Land Office email by releasing messages about the formation of the GLO softball team—literally—but for everything more substantive he asked the attorney general to permit him to deny disclosure. This was coming, of course, at a very sensitive time for Commissioner Bush as he fired the Daughters of the Republic of Texas from management of the Alamo and accepted the donation of rocker Phil Collins’ collection of Alamo artifacts—which was privately concerning to state officials because they were unsure of the provenance of Collins’ gifts. It seems that some of the Collins artifacts are believed to have once been owned by the State of Texas and officials have asked quietly, well, like, what’s up with that? “As a state agency,” said a high-ranking General Land Office official who works directly for Commissioner Bush, discussing a worry about the possible traffic in Texas artifacts that you won’t see mentioned in Bush email unless the AG forces his hand, which is not likely, “there are some things that we might need to know where they came from better than a private collector in Switzerland.” (Collins is a Swiss resident.) Indeed, it is the issue of artifacts and gifts that may yet cause Rick Perry his first archive-related headaches.
If you go to the State Archives, for the payment of three dollars you can get a CD listing all the gifts that George W. Bush received in six years in the Governor’s Mansion. There are something like 5400 entries, everything from books, flags, T-shirts, jewelry, non-alcoholic beer (the born-again W was a teetotaler), the gift-givers including everyone from political guru Karl Rove to singer Lyle Lovett and foreign ambassadors. W donated some, consumed some, returned some, and threw out other stuff. He also shredded some literature he was given, reason unknown. Some gifts went to the State of Texas. Rick Perry was in office for fourteen years and a labor-intensive search has just yielded, per Gov. Abbott’s office, a list half as long as W’s and with no dispositions of the gifts. “We have not received any gifts or artifacts from Gov. Perry’s office,” says Laura Saegert, assistant director of State Archives, adding for the public’s edification, “The Perry records are stored in the downtown archives building in Austin and also at our State Records Center in Austin. The e-records are stored at the State Data Center, on a secure server,” awaiting transfer to Amazon’s government cloud. The only mention of physical Perry artifacts of office was last year, in the discussion between the then governor’s office and the archives, according to notes of the meeting, as preparations were made to pass ownership to the state: “[Perry’s lawyer Justin Gordon] reported the Governor’s Office’s having certain 3-dimensional objects like boxes of wire hangers (some with paper messages attached, some without) and crocheted female body parts. He asked if they would have archival value, and whether the GO should transfer them. The State Archives staff said that yes, they may have archival value, and they should be transferred.” Those particular artifacts, apparently souvenirs of the anti-abortion debate, did not survive the short trip from the Governor’s Office to the State Archives. So, like, once again, what’s up with that?
The real loss here is not crocheted female body parts, it’s transparency, in the course of little more than a decade under the watch of Perry and Abbott the State of Texas has taken a big step backward in open government while everyone else in the country (with the exception of the Obama White House; see prior posting “Ann Richards and the FBI”) is trying to move forward. Business interests, especially, got Perry in transparency trouble and may yet prove problematic for the new Big Man as well. There’s a lot of stuff to hide in a governor’s office, just before Abbott's email drop he released his daily calendars which included only one redaction, involving a business recruitment appointment—probably high tech and possibly biopharma, since Abbott’s new legislative director was, until this year, Texas lobbyist for the drugmaking giant Genentech and Abbott was protective of the healthcare industry as AG. Big Pharma is a continuing bet for coziness on Abbott's part just as the healthcare industry was Perry's Achille's heel. Anyway, there’s good, bad and a lot of ugly on the transparency front at the Capitol today: what arrives at the State Archives is no longer by default an open record and while that may not be related to the format of the records themselves, paper versus electronic, the fact that Perry’s staff went through all his documentation while preparing transfer to the cloud, scanning some of the paper and by their own admission disposing of some, wiping computer memories, whatever, means that it was a perfect opportunity to lose anything inconvenient—anything for example that doesn’t fit the screenplay for the movie Rick Perry wants produced. A recent meeting of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission delineates exactly where the state has arrived in terms of openness. This is the same state board that tangled with Gov. Bush over his papers, and won, but has no apparent interest in a fight with James R. “Rick” Perry.
At their meeting in February members referenced their “beef” with W and then asked staff how Perry’s choice of the State Archives as repository rather than an educational institution like A&M would affect the handling of the ex-governor’s papers. Ms. Chubb explained to the board that if Perry had chosen a university the State Archives would have had legal authority over the documents but no actual control, as is pretty much the case with the Bush archive at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, “We would have the legal responsibility for the records but we would not have any control over what software solution they would have used,” she added, because the software is now the key to practically any modern record keeping. Asked if the handling of the Perry papers would be better than the Bush outcome, which required nine years of work to classify a six-year governorship, she added: “Without a doubt. That is because the [Perry papers] are our legal responsibility but also in our physical custody, therefore we can actually do more of the descriptive work that goes into providing access to them, and we’ll do a very good job of redacting information to make sure that records that are released do not have any confidential information.” At the same meeting the archives were named as the division of the Texas State Library at highest-risk for irregularities and as the number one priority of internal auditors this year but it’s unlikely that process will look at what did or did not arrive from Gov. Perry’s office. So, it’s not so much openness anymore, at the State Archives, and how to insure that, it’s more about confidentiality, and how to insure that, yet there are still risks to officeholders whatever the approach, online or on paper. Just as when erasing a computer memory, traces always remain. If you look at Gov. Perry’s much redacted execution file on Cameron Todd Willingham for instance, now available for review at the archives reading room, there’s a refusal for a writ of habeas corpus by America’s favorite conservative jurist, Antonin Scalia, and a press release by the then Texas attorney general about the great work his office did fighting appeals to the execution. That AG’s name was Greg Abbott. It seems old records can be risky business indeed.
In another sheaf of Perry docs from his time in office there’s a fleeting mention of a search warrant, apparently served in 2008, for the governor’s open records files, which could also be embarrassing even if nothing was found at the time. State archivists say they cannot locate the warrant itself and Perry’s frequent nemesis Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said in a brief email the other day that her office was not responsible, if the warrant really exists. There should be a pretty large file in the Perry archive on Lehmberg herself, however, and the governor’s efforts to remove her from office but, until Perry’s criminal trial is over, you probably don’t need to bother to ask for that either and perhaps not even after the trial. It may remain “confidential” under Attorney General Paxton. Interestingly, according to archivists, Perry has no more rights now to his former papers than anyone else. “We need clarification,” archivists wrote last year, “on what Governor Perry would like scanned to take with him. Certain series of records will contain confidential information. Once Perry leaves office he probably does not have a right of access to those records (executive clemency for example)," which means as a practical matter that anything he did not lose while in office he can’t lose now. Yet the former Big Man still has influence—and friends in high places—Gov. Abbott is informed of all open records requests for Perry’s papers and represents his “interests,” principally maintaining “confidentiality.” One way to reverse engineer the process and dig dirt, if one were of a mind to do something like that, would be to find out what Perry wanted to take with him. But that’s for another day and there actually may be no record of that either. NINO, again.
So, eventually, this governor’s archive has the possibility to be a 14-year-long infomercial, a paid political advertisement for Rick Perry or, alternatively, what the former governor might prefer, something out of John Ford and worthy of one of the most dominant leaders to walk the Capitol since Sam Houston. Perry is no fool, he’s been a good governor by many standards and certainly a popular one but how you view what’s online, when it comes online, will depend largely on your view of the Big Man as a man. Nothing is black and white anymore, like print on a page, it’s in color like a movie with shades and tones of meaning. We’ll have to wait and see how this one comes out. In the meantime, if you have a chance to visit Austin and you find yourself at the corner of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue, as many people do, look north towards the Capitol and on the left side of the street you’ll see a statute of a hefty matron of a certain age firing a cannon. That’s Angelina Eberly who protected the state’s papers the first time this issue arose, during the Archives War, back during the short-lived Texas Republic. She had a big pair. Sadly for the public’s right to know, no one in this town has big enough huevos to replace her.