On January 12, El Paso Politics submitted an open records request to the county judge and the county commissioners. We asked for all communications sent and received by the government officials about the U.S. Marshals Service jail contract with the County. Readers may remember that the county commissioners wanted to approve the renewal of the federal contract recently. The contract was first postponed and then deleted without discussion.
The County was looking to sign the new contract to increase the federal payment the County receives for each federal prisoner it jails at the local jail. However, although the contract is the third-largest source of revenue for the County, the contract is controversial because many of the federal detainees are immigrants jailed on non-violent charges.
We asked for all communications between January 1 and January 12, 2021.
On Friday, January 22, 2021, the County responded to our request advising us that the County has asked the office of Ken Paxton to opine on whether the information should be released to us.
In the letter to the Texas Attorney General, the County argues that the information we are requesting may be protected from release. The County asserts that under Texas Government Code Section 552.104, certain information may be withheld if it is confidential. The Code provides for exceptions when the information requested may provide “an advantage to competitor or bidder.”
However, the contract is a negotiation between a federal agency, the U.S. Marshals Service and the County of El Paso.
Because they are both governmental entities, it is unclear to us how releasing the information to the public would be an “advantage” to a bidder.
Of particular interest to us is that the letter to the Texas Attorney General states that the County is “currently identifying the material” that they “believe is confidential and/or excepted”. The County adds in their letter that they “will provide that material [they deem confidential] with a more detailed brief at a later date.”
In other words, the County has yet to identify which, if any, of the records we requested may be exempt.
Readers should also note that the County has ten business days to reply to a Texas Public Information Act request.
The ten business days were to expire on Thursday, January 28.
By submitting their letter to the Texas Attorney General, it seems that the County has bought more time for responding to our open records request.
This is a developing story and we will update as more information becomes available.