CPS Energy violated the Texas Public Information Act by deleting video showing the utility’s top lawyer practicing for a television interview, according to a lawyer specializing in freedom of information issues.
The City-owned utility’s communications department shot the video the day before I sat down for an on-camera interview with CPS General Counsel Carolyn Shellman to discuss expenditures for expensive meals and parties – bills footed by ratepayers.
As we prepared for the interview, I asked Shellman if she had rehearsed for her appearance, a standard public-relations practice ahead of a high-stakes interview. The attorney denied any special preparation as we sat down in the utility’s board room at CPS Energy headquarters on February 1. But CPS Energy emails – released in response to a recent open records request I filed – reveal Shellman and the utility’s communications department did rehearse her answers the day before her on-camera appearance. The emails show Communications Director Lisa Lewis sent meeting notices to Shellman and the utility’s videographer for what she called a “run through interview” and “interview prep” on January 31.
When I requested a copy of the video last week, I was informed it no longer existed. “We don’t have any material responsive to your request about Ms. Shellman’s interview preparation,” Lewis said in an email responding to the open records request. “We played back from the camera and did not save the file.”
Deleting the video violates the Texas Public Information Act says Joe Larsen, an attorney and director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, an open-government advocacy group. (Disclosure: I am on the FOIFT board).
“There is no doubt that the public’s business and the official position of the utility were discussed. That’s not a transitory record, but substantive information subject to the retention schedule.” said Larsen.
Yet Lewis said, “CPS Energy does not have a specific video retention policy.” However, CPS Energy says it did retain footage from an employee interview training session held last summer.
A spokesperson for San Antonio Water System says it has no policy on raw video, but follows the guidelines set by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Those require public records to be retained at least two years.
“Generally speaking, we consider raw footage to be of archival value, and we retain it indefinitely when practical," SAWS spokeswoman Anne Hayden said. "But that’s not to say we’ve never lost any to accidental erasure or media failure."
In the case of CPS Energy's video, it was not an accident.
— Brian Collister, WOAI Investigative Reporter. Find him online at woai.com. Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.