This piece first appeared as a discussion post for the course JRN200 at the University of Arizona Global Campus.
…a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.Madison, 1822
[It] is an axiom in political science, that unless the people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self-government.Declaration of Independence of Texas, 1836, para. 11
When considering why open records laws are important, the key word is accountability. The public as a whole has a right to access and review the records of the people they’ve entrusted with the business of governance, though there has historically been much debate about how much information about governmental activity is “healthy” for the public to have. Terms like “national security” and “public welfare” are sometimes not as well-defined as they should be, but those two ideas are exactly why a transparent government is crucial.
One of the most critical ethical problems we suffer in our current government system is a vast network of financial conflicts of interest. There are only very lax stipulations disqualifying someone from taking public office if they have a conflict of interest, though candidates to any position are required to report any. Two major examples of conflicts of interest come from Trump-era appointees Betsy DeVos and Louis DeJoy. DeVos, the former Education Secretary, oversaw the administration of public school systems, including public colleges. However, DeVos was heavily invested in both student loan companies and charter school programs 1 , which manifested in policies that favored privatizing student loan programs 2 and defunding public education 3 . This is beyond the fact that DeVos had no background in public education at all prior to her appointment in 2016 4, 5 . Louis DeJoy was appointed as the postmaster general for the United States Postal Service in 2020 6 , but he also had preexisting significant financial interests in numerous businesses that contracted directly with the USPS 7, 8 . The House Committee on Oversight and Reform even specifically noted that DeJoy’s position was additionally so sensitive to the elections process that, given his vocal political alliance in addition to financial interests, he should never have been allowed to take office at all 9.
None of these revelations would have been made without a protected precedent of open access to government records. (The additional responsibility of an informed public is to provide ways to act on this kind of information, and that’s a different problem beyond the scope of this assignment.)
For my state, Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, also known as the Public Information Act, makes the standard rule in Texas open access to government records with limitations placed only by specific legislative action 10 . In other words, everything is (theoretically) available to the public unless there is a named circumstance otherwise. Specific records from the Comptroller’s office can be requested through an online portal system, FYI Open Records, but data sets such as active sales tax permit holders or unclaimed property listings can be accessed through the Texas Open Data Portal.
Christie, G. (2020, September 3). Postmaster DeJoy exposed in multi-million dollar conflict of interest scandal. Bipartisan Report. https://bipartisanreport.com/2020/09/03/postmaster-dejoy-exposed-in-multi-million-dollar-conflict-of-interest-scandal/
Declaration of Independence of Texas. (1836, March 2). Texas State Library Archives Commission. https://www.tsl.texas.gov/treasures/republic/declaration.html
Durkee, A. (2021, October 21). Louis DeJoy had more than a dozen potential conflicts of interest upon taking charge of USPS, documents suggest. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisondurkee/2021/10/21/louis-dejoy-had-more-than-a-dozen-potential-usps-conflicts-of-interest-upon-taking-office-documents-suggest/
Experts agree DeJoy’s conflicts of interest should have disqualified him from consideration for postmaster general. (2020, September 15). House Committee on Oversight and Reform. https://oversight.house.gov/news/press-releases/experts-agree-dejoy-s-conflicts-of-interest-should-have-disqualified-him-from
Kelly, C. (2020, May 6). Trump ally Louis DeJoy named next postmaster general. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/06/politics/louis-dejoy-new-postmaster-general/index.html
Madison, J. (1822, August 4). Founders Online: From James Madison to William T. Barry, 4 August 1822. National Archives; University of Virginia Press. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-02-02-0480
Rep. Stevens questions Secretary Betsy DeVos about charter schools, disinvestment. (2019, April 10). Representative Haley Stevens. https://stevens.house.gov/media/press-releases/rep-stevens-questions-secretary-betsy-devos-about-charter-schools-disinvestment
Sacks, S. (2018, May 22). Education Sec. DeVos Unfazed by Conflict of Interest Charges » THE DISTRICT SENTINEL news co-op. THE DISTRICT SENTINEL News Co-Op. https://districtsentinel.com/education-sec-devos-unfazed-by-conflict-of-interest-charges/
Stratford, M. (2017, January 20). DeVos review identifies 102 financial interests with potential conflicts. POLITICO. http://politi.co/2D8zEaA
The Public Information Act. (2019, February 28). Texas Comptroller. https://comptroller.texas.gov/about/policies/open-records/public-information-act.php
Turner, C. (2020, November 19). How Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will be remembered. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/11/19/936225974/the-legacy-of-education-secretary-betsy-devos
Wade, J. (2017, January 28). Betsy DeVos, education and her qualifications. Gateway. https://unothegateway.com/betsy-devos-education-qualifications/