Perry's Spare Schedule Feeds Transparency Concerns

The governor who considers himself one of the state’s hardest workers has few official records to back up that claim — especially compared to the detailed schedules kept by his fellow big-state governors, which were obtained by The Texas Tribune through open records requests.

Gov. Rick Perry's Democratic opponent, former Houston mayor Bill White, criticized the Republican incumbent in June for "working part time" after his schedule for the first six months of 2010 showed an average of seven hours of state work per week and 38 weekdays with “no state scheduled events.” Perry responded that he simply doesn’t write down much of his work for the state.

By contrast, the Tribune found that Perry's counterparts in California, New York and Florida do write down what they do. New York Gov. David Paterson’s schedule goes so far as to include drive times between events. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lists "cigar time" on his schedule. And they make their schedules readily available to the public. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist puts his schedule online every day.

In at least one instance, a comparison of the calendars reveals an apparent inconsistency between the record-keeping of the gubernatorial peers. Crist’s schedule shows five conference calls during the month of May with Perry and other Gulf Coast governors related to the BP oil spill. Perry’s schedule makes no mention of the calls. On one of the days on which Crist’s log shows a phone call with Perry, Perry’s schedule reads “no state scheduled events.”

“Many times the governor was on [the call], [and] many times his staff was on," says Katherine Cesinger, a Perry spokeswoman. “If the governor didn’t call in, it’s not necessarily on his schedule.”

 

A closer look at the four governors' schedules in the month of May (see our interactive presentation) suggests differences in how they approach their jobs. Perry appears to be the only one of the four who took three-day weekends — his schedule shows five of 21 weekdays with no "state scheduled events" — whereas Crist, Schwarzenegger and Paterson took no weekdays off other than Memorial Day. Perry appeared at two in-state press conferences, but his schedule shows no individual interviews with Texas media outlets. Paterson sat down for a total of 18 one-on-one interviews, and Schwarzenegger did two sit-downs with California broadcast journalists. Cesinger says Perry takes questions during media availabilities — a few questions from a scrum of gathered reporters — at "just about every event [he] speaks at." She estimates that such availabilities occurred "about half the month," although she offered no official accounting. Perry has also declined to meet with editorial boards in 2010, both during the gubernatorial primary and again during the general election campaign. Crist, running as an independent for a U.S. Senate seat, took part in three editorial board meetings in May alone.

When White first attacked Perry for his seemingly light load, the governor said, “Just because it’s not written down on the schedule doesn’t mean I’m not out there working for the people of Texas.” Perry also challenged reporters to find anyone who can outwork him. Yet in the absence of such records, there’s no objective way of knowing how much he works or what he does. In response to questions about holes in his official workday, Cesinger said the office has released all the details it keeps and echoed her boss in saying that serving as governor “is a 24/7 job.”

"False impression"

Open-government advocates call Perry's spare schedules troublesome.

“The governor’s explanation sounds to be a candid admission that he’s leaving stuff off the schedule,” says Ken Bunting, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the onetime Capitol bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “If there’s a schedule, it’s a public record. If it’s incomplete, then it’s a deception the people ought to be concerned about. … [A] document that gives a false impression is not a good practice.”

"It's one thing to say you believe in transparency and its another thing to demonstrate it," says Keith Elkins, the executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "If you're putting in a full day's work, put it in the schedule to show us. The taxpayer should not be left to guess if you are working on their behalf. They should be able to see for themselves how much or how little he's working."

Political opponents, not surprisingly, echoed that sentiment.

“There’s no statute that requires him to account for all of his time,” says Andrew Wheat, research director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “The bigger concern would be, when the governor is doing something that involves state business, to what extent is that documented in some way, or to what extent is there a tendency to destroy or not record it?”

 

Representatives for Perry’s fellow Republican governors in California and Florida say their bosses made overt pushes early in their terms for their schedules to be more transparent. In California, Schwarzenegger was the first governor in his state’s history to make his schedule publicly available. “Reporters are allowed to view it and look through it, stay as long as they want. The public schedule will say, 'Meeting with Senator whomever' — no redactions or anything,” says Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger’s spokesman. In Florida, Crist’s first executive order upon taking office in January 2007 established a special Office of Open Government. “We strive daily to ensure all possible records are accessible by the Floridians we serve,” says Sterling Ivey, a Crist aide.

For his part, Perry often calls for openness and transparency on the stump, citing, as a prime example, a push to make the Texas budget more accessible. “Gov. Perry is a longtime supporter of transparency and accountability in government,” Cesinger wrote in an e-mail, noting that Sunshine Week — a nonprofit open-government advocacy group funded by the American Society of News Editors — recognized Texas as No. 1 in online transparency among all 50 states in 2009.

Destroying e-mails

Critics counter by citing a pattern of the open records policies and practices of Perry’s office not matching up with the talk. “This is a governor who’s in constant re-election mode, and they’re trying to present themselves in the best possible light,” Wheat says. “That does not mean a free flow of information.”

Case in point: Perry’s office maintains a policy of deleting its e-mails every seven days, a shorter retention period than almost all other state agencies and major cities. It also allows staffers to decide which e-mails involve state business and thus must be retained, leaving open the possibility that individual employees who aren't well-versed in the law are innocently but irrevocably destroying public records. Perry’s aides have defended the retention policy by saying it simply follows that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. But the destruction of documents can make it difficult, if not impossible, to piece together what happens inside the governor's office. In 2007, for example, reporters were unable to determine what Perry knew about systematic abuse inside juvenile jails, and when he might have known it, because his office deleted e-mails long before the scandal broke.

"The fact that there are so few records regarding his schedule is related to the deletion of emails," says Houston attorney and longtime open-government champion Joe Larsen, who has formally complained about the e-mail policy to the Travis County District Attorney's Office, which has jurisdiction over ethics matters involving state officials. "It reduces the amount of information that's available to the people of Texas. If it's a decision to minimize records of his activiity, what that means in the end is that people just don't know what he's doing — and people need to know what the governor's doing."

Perry’s office has also restricted the release of information related to the death penalty case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man executed in 2005 despite a capital murder conviction won on the basis of what a state panel has admitted was “flawed" arson evidence. On the day of the execution, Perry's office got a faxed clemency report about the Willingham case. But it is not known if the governor read it, as his office has declined to release any of his or his staff's comments or analysis of the reprieve request. The governor’s office maintains that the documents are protected by attorney-client privilege. “No other Texas governor — going back at least to Ann Richards — has released those attorney-client privileged documents,” Cesinger says. Still, the Houston Chronicle has filed suit in an effort to get access to the report. "When it comes to human life, there is no place the governor should be more transparent in his decision-making," said Jonathan Donnellan, an attorney for the Chronicle and its corporate parent, Hearst Newspapers, when the suit was filed.

Earlier this year, Perry’s office was found to be ignoring state law that requires all state agencies to be "accountable and transparent" by posting their stimulus spending reports on their websites. Only after an Austin American-Statesman reporter’s inquiry did the governor’s office begin posting the reports, many of which were months old. According to the Statesman, the governor’s spokeswoman would not elaborate on why Perry chose not to follow the law that other state officials were expected to follow.

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