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Why are journalists' requests for George W. Bush's gubernatorial documents being met with lengthy delays?

| Tue Jan. 29, 2002 4:00 AM EST

Dozens of pallets loaded with shrink-wrapped boxes arrived at the George Herbert Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas on January 2nd, 2001. Inside the boxes were about 2,000 cubic-feet of files, memos and other paper documents related to George W. Bush's five years as governor of Texas.

The records arrived at the library as the result of a 1997 state measure signed into law by then-Governor Bush. Now, the records -- and access to them -- have become the focus of a growing debate between journalists, archivists and Bush administration officials.

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Texas law mandates that gubernatorial records be placed in a state archive subject to Texas's stringent Public Information Act. But the 1997 law, the result of several years of legislative maneuvering, allows for a governor to pick an alternate archive -- such as the presidential library, which is a federal institution governed by US information laws.

While few have suggested that Bush decided to send his records to his father's presidential library in an effort to make them less accessible, that is exactly what journalists say has occurred.

Last March R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle requested access Bush's gubernatorial records. Ratcliffe says his request was eventually fulfilled, but not until four months had passed. Although he says members of the governor's staff and library officials updated him on his request, Ratcliffe says he never received a written explanation for the lengthy delay.

"Part of the problem initially was when Bush left, he vacuum sealed his records and sent them to his father's library. The National Archives had nothing to tell them what was in the records. At the time they were just boxes on pallets," said Ratcliffe. "In the sense that the state law allows the governor to designate a repository site, most of the time we don't care about the records. This is an unusual situation as Bush is president; his records are of vital interest to reporters and to the public."

Bush's personal lawyer, Terri Lacy, said the delays are simply the result of inadequate planning and an overtaxed library staff.

"Any problems relate to the fact that it's difficult to find the paperwork," Lacy says. "Our goal is to get the records as accessible as soon as possible."

Tom Hamburger of the Wall Street Journal says he requested access to correspondence between Bush and several business leaders, including Charles Cawley of America Bank, Thomas R. Kuhn of Edison Electric Institute, and Kenneth Lay of Enron. Hamburger says his request was met with delays caused by bureaucratic confusion over how the records should be handled.

Christy Hoppe, a staff writer for the Dallas Morning News, requested copies of all correspondence between Bush and various members of Enron, including Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, Rick Causey, and Cliff Baxter, from 1996 to 1999. Hoppe's request, made in December, has yet to be fulfilled and she says she has not received any explanation in writing.

"I don't get any sense of stonewalling," said Hoppe. "Frankly, I recognize they have thousands of boxes that have not been fully catalogued, but they have not fully followed the letter of the law."

One problem, state officials say, is that it remains unclear which law should prevail.

Bush's gubernatorial records are the property of the state of Texas, state archivists argue, and as such should be subject to state information laws. The George Bush Presidential Library, where they reside, is a federal institution, maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration. Library officials have said they will attempt to comply with US Freedom of Information regulations, which give them 90 days to respond to requests for documents. They said they couldn't meet the state's guidelines, which call for a response within 10 days.

Susan Cooper, spokesperson for the archives and records administration, says the staff at the presidential library is already busy and cannot be expected to follow state guidelines.

"This is an additional burden. This could be a full time job and we don't' have the provisions to attend to that," Cooper says.

Chris LaPlante, state archivist at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, says the confusion over the gubernatorial records is a direct result of disorganization in the governor's office created by Bush's presidential campaign.

"Once Bush got into the presidential campaign, some staff (that were) working on the transfer of files switched over to his campaign. The transfer of records wasn't paramount in anyone's mind at the time," he says. According to LaPlant, following the confusion of the election, the gubernatorial records were largely forgotten, with no agreement about where they would be sent or who would manage them.

The sole document prepared before the transfer was one in which Bush simply declared that his father's presidential library would be the repository for records -- a decision which was later confirmed by then-Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer, Peggy D. Rudd, the director of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and Richard L. Claypoole, assistant archivist at the Bush Presidential Library. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn is reviewing Bush's directive and will deliver a legal opinion by May 20.

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