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Chairman of Texas forensic science panel oversteps his authority | Editorials & Opinions | Star…

Chairman of Texas forensic science panel oversteps his authority | Editorials & Opinions

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

November 26, 2009

What is it John Bradley doesn’t want the public to know about the work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission?

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, to head the commission in September in a hasty shake-up of the panel’s membership that left lingering suspicions about the governor’s motives.

Bradley then proceeded to suggest in a public hearing that the commission might need to operate in secret on occasion. This Editorial Board cautioned against that idea on Nov. 14.

Now it sounds as though Bradley could be subtly trying to muzzle other panel members.

What he — and the governor — should realize is that this agency isn’t going to revert to obscurity, and trying to exercise dictatorial control over information is only going to draw negative attention and undermine public confidence.

The Legislature created the commission in 2005 to investigate complaints that state agencies were negligent or committed misconduct in handling forensic evidence, such as DNA analysis or toxicology, in criminal cases.

The nine-member panel gained notice when it hired a Baltimore fire expert who wrote a report questioning the arson determination that led to the capital conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Perry caused a stir by installing Bradley and two other new members shortly before a planned hearing on that report.

Star-Telegram reporter Dave Montgomery wrote Saturday that commission staff coordinator Leigh Tomlin had asked members for all correspondence about the Willingham case in order to comply with an open records request.

But her Oct. 30 message went further, instructing that commission policy is to “delete all commission correspondence” and saying “if you feel there is something that needs to be saved, forward it to my office.”

Bradley told Montgomery that the idea was to centralize data to make it easier to comply with media inquiries.

But any direction to delete public records — which e-mails by members of a public board are — looks problematic, whatever the purpose.

It would be easier to take Bradley at his word if members hadn’t received other e-mails telling them Bradley would handle all media inquiries and statements about the commission.

Providing consistent and accurate information is an admirable goal. But all nine members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission are appointed independently. They are not subordinate to the chairman, who is not given any specific powers in the law creating the commission.

As public officials, panel members should be free to talk to the media or public as they choose, as long as they don’t undercut the commission’s responsibilities.

Each member should be focused on conducting credible, independent investigations with as much transparency as possible.

No one should use the agency as a tool for aggregating power, steering outcomes, stifling dissent or shielding from public scrutiny the work done on behalf of Texans.

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