(AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration is facing court challenges over attempts to keep records from the public.
At issue is the use of a public records exemption successfully pushed by Jindal and added to state law during his first term.
One lawsuit appears to be headed for resolution, but another is still pending over the “deliberative process” exemption cited by administration officials in refusing to release a variety of documents.
Shreveport-based Willis-Knighton Health System sued the Department of Transportation and Development over its refusal to provide information about a highway extension project. The department claimed an exemption tied to the “deliberative process.”
That lawsuit may be near settlement; a Tuesday hearing was postponed after officials said they would release the documents.
“All the information requested will be provided. No legal proceedings are anticipated,” Jodi Conachen, a transportation department spokeswoman, said in an email.
However, a separate lawsuit has not yet been resolved.
In August, the News-Star newspaper in Monroe sued the Education Department for denying information about the state’s new voucher program for public schools. The Jindal-backed program uses tax dollars to send students to private schools. The department argued that emails requested by the newspaper could be kept hidden under the governor’s deliberative process exemption.
Governors before Jindal had broad exemptions from Louisiana’s public records law that shielded most documents in the governor’s office from scrutiny. In 2009, Jindal backed legislation to shield anything considered part of his “deliberative process.”
The administration has used the exemption to keep documents from public view that previously had been available to the public. The language has been broadly interpreted by the administration, and records in departments outside the governor’s office have been withheld.
In the lawsuit against the transportation department, Willis-Knighton Chief Financial Officer Robert Huie said he filed a June 28 public records request to department Secretary Sherri LeBas seeking all communications between the agency and 11 people or organizations, including the governor and former Jindal chief of staff Timmy Teepell, about plans to extend Louisiana Highway 3132.
The July 20 response from transportation officials provided some records but also “heavily redacted and materially altered many of the email communications,” saying they could be kept confidential because of the deliberative process exemption, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit argues the exemption should apply only to the governor, his staff and records used in the governor’s office — not to agencies outside the governor’s office.
In July, the Division of Administration refused to release to The Associated Press most records involving the state’s alternative fuel vehicle tax credit, claiming the deliberative process exemption.
The shielded documents include items involving a controversial ruling — subsequently rescinded by Jindal — over the kinds of vehicles that would qualify for the tax credit program. The move keeps hidden documents on the state tax credit that could offer insights into a contentious issue that raised fears of state budget troubles and appears to have prompted the resignation of a cabinet secretary.
Meanwhile, Superintendent of Education John White withheld records sought by AP on deliberations over how schools were chosen to participate in the voucher program. White has said he’ll release the documents this month, after enrollment through the voucher program is complete.
In its response to AP, the Education Department claims “a deliberative process privilege” cited in two court rulings that have nothing to do with education, but involve legal battles over what records should be available to the legislative auditor’s office.