El Paso

Opposition research or vexatious requester?

Open records request

EL PASO, Texas - In July, County Judge Veronica Escobar said during a Commissioners Court meeting her office was bombarded by public records requests from a single person. The requests were filed by a consulting firm hired by her Democratic Congressional Primary opponent, Dori Fennenbock. ABC-7's I-Team filed a request of its own to find out what was requested.

The county attorney's office tells ABC-7 they received 110 open records requests all last year, countywide. A list of the requests filed this year just dealing with the former county judge, 166 total. They tell ABC-7 staff is still working to fulfill them.

"They have been very, very taxing on our county attorney's office, on my staff, on the lawyers who are making sure we're being responsive and redacting," County Judge Veronica Escobar told ABC-7 in July.

In July, Commissioners Court voted to approve rule that a 36-hour time limit per requestor, per year, before the county begins charging to recover research costs. Mark Sanders, who was hired by Escobar's opponent Dori Fennenbock, filed 166 open records requests in less than one month, sometimes a dozen a day.

"We requested information from the county so we could figure out what's happening with children's hospital, what's happening with the Tornillo bridge that's ended up being closed and is a bridge to nowhere," Dori Fennenbock said.

The requests range from text messages, to emails to expenditure reimbursements, separate ones for each week.

"It took us many, many weeks and at what point we had six attorneys working on responding to these requests," Elihu Dominguez, with the county attorney's said.

"Opposition research is used in order to find weaknesses in other political candidates so this is age old and goes back for a really long time," UTEP professor Dr. Charles Boehmer said. "Open records are one way of shedding light on potential corruption or other information that the general public should know."

ABC-7 spoke to open government attorney Bill Aleshire if he saw something unusual with the request. He tells ABC-7 he did.

"If I turn around and turn it into 365 individual requests for each day on the calendar, that have to be responded to separately, I think that's abusing and harassing," Aleshire said.

Logs obtained by ABC-7 show some information requested one week, then just days or weeks later, another overlapping request covering a portion of the same timeframe.

A new law in effect since September is cracking down on this type of strategy. It lets governmental agencies put limits on how much time they have to respond to Texas Public information requests by making requesters pay in advance.

"We have to admit that there are circumstances where requesters seem to be misusing the TPIA as a weapon to harass public officials instead of a good faith effort simply to get information they are entitled to get," Aleshire said.

Public officials have to respond within 10 days to open records requests, but Fennenbock says it's been five months and they're not all completed. The county's attorney's office says they've completed almost 90% of the requests and still have 19 pending.

ABC-7 made the same request to EPISD of any open records requests filed regarding then-trustee Dori Fennenbock for the same period. Some could related to opposition research, but they requested a large swath of emails and texts in a single email.

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