by Jay Root, The Texas Tribune, A TownSquareBuzz content sharing partner.
State officials said Friday they can’t reveal how much money taxpayers are spending to protect Gov. Rick Perry, including when he’s outside the state hunting for votes or money in a possible presidential race.
The Department of Public Safety also disclosed Friday that financial records on security costs for the years before 2008 — including the costs related to Perry’s security — have been “purged.” Those records include documents that had been the subject of a controversial court case and previous freedom of information requests from news outlets, officials said. The agency was unable to say Friday exactly when the records were destroyed.
“The Department maintains financial records for a period of three years after the fiscal year in which an expense is incurred,” the DPS wrote in a letter Friday to The Texas Tribune. “Accordingly, the records for FY01-07 have already been purged from our systems and are no longer available.”
Perry aides have argued against releasing detailed travel expenses, such as hotel vouchers and airline tickets for security guards, saying to do so would jeopardize the security of the governor. But the new DPS disclosures Friday marked a new level of secrecy about the records. Even the raw spending totals are unavailable because, the agency said, they’re lumped in with expenditures for other elected officials and foreign dignitaries. Those figures showed the state has spent more than $20 million since 2008 protecting various officials.
Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, an open records expert affiliated with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, said the destruction of records and lack of detail about ongoing expenses keeps too much out of the public eye.
“It’s one thing to get details that DPS thinks might undermine the security the governor,” Aleshire said. “It’s quite another to tell the taxpayers of Texas that they can’t even find out how much money has been spent on this.” Aleshire said agencies are not supposed to get rid of documents when court cases are pending or when there are outstanding public information requests for them.
Three newspapers had sued in 2007 to get Perry’s detailed travel vouchers. The Supreme Court ruled on July 1 that the records could remain secret. On June 28, The Tribune requested the total amount spent on Perry’s security since 2000.
Mark Miner, Perry’s spokesman, said the governor’s office defers to the DPS on security issues.
“The governor’s security is a DPS issue,” Miner said. “We rely on DPS to make those decisions.”
A call placed to the office of the attorney general, which oversees open records matters, has not yet been returned.
Overall security costs include the expense associated with providing protection for other state elected officials, along with foreign dignitaries, the DPS said. The agency also provides security for the lieutenant governor and speaker.
Figures released Friday by the DPS, overseen by a board that Perry appointed, show that Texans have paid $22 million to protect state elected officials and dignitaries since 2008.
The costs have risen sharply in the last couple of years. In 2008, it cost about $4.9 million to protect them, and roughly the same, or $4.7 million, a year later. But in 2010, when Perry and other officials were in heated election battles, the costs increased to $7.1 million. And by July 20 of this year, it has already cost taxpayers $5.6 million.
With several months left in the year, and plenty of out-of-state trips planned by the governor, the costs are on track to eclipse the figures from 2010. Perry was in California and Colorado this week and is expected to travel to Denver for a conference that is drawing at least two declared presidential candidates next week.
In the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, critics of then-Gov. George W. Bush said the Republican should use campaign funds to reimburse taxpayers for the costs of his security while he was running for president. Like Bush, Perry has said it’s appropriate for the state to pay for his security when he travels.
A new law that passed the Legislature this year was supposed to make total cost figures available, but it’s unclear how costs are supposed to be reported or broken out. Details, such as travel vouchers, presumably would be disclosed later. The new law says that for a period of 18 months, the public will not know how or where the money is being spent.
That would put off any detailed disclosure of security costs for Perry that are paid for by the state past the 2012 election. While private donors are picking up the cost for Perry’s political travel, the DPS pays the tab for security, using money primarily pulled from the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees.
According to a report by the San Antonio Express-News in 2010, taxpayers spent almost $1 million protecting Perry and his wife on 23 foreign trips during the previous seven years. In one case, before the government began keeping most of the details secret, taxpayers paid for the rental of scuba gear and a golf cart during Perry’s 2005 trip to the Bahamas, records show.