Ousted NLC president left the Alamo Colleges in August.
By Kyle R. Cotton
The lawsuit filed by former Northeast Lakeview President Craig Follins against the Texas attorney general and Alamo Colleges in March over public release of documents related to his termination as president could be closer to resolution.
Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a motion for summary judgment Aug. 24, which asks the court to rule that no issues of fact are in dispute, allowing the court to dismiss the case as a matter of law.
Follins filed an appeal Sept. 6.
Follins was removed from his position as president of the district’s newest college Oct. 29 by Chancellor Bruce Leslie for unacceptable behavior, including allegations of negative treatment of faculty and staff.
Follins was reassigned as special projects administrator — a position that did not exist previously — and kept his salary of $205,387.03 to “analyze and provide recommendations on the market opportunities for distance learning.”
Follins filed the lawsuit April 8 after Paxton ruled documents related to his termination should be released to the public.
The Ranger and the San Antonio Express-News had requested the information under the Texas Public Information Act. Follins seeks a permanent injunction against Alamo Colleges and the attorney general to prevent the release of the information.
In Paxton’s motion for summary judgment, he writes:
“This is a lawsuit brought under the Texas Public Information Act … in which plaintiff Craig Follins challenges attorney general open records letter rulings … each of which was issued to the defendant Alamo Community College District because Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate the information at issue is excepted from required public disclosure, the court should grant defendant attorney general’s motion and order the information at issue be released to the requestors in accordance with the attorney general’s letter rulings.”
Paxton argues that it is up to Follins to prove the exceptions apply, which Paxton believes Follins has failed to do.
“Any minimal privacy interest Follins might claim in the information is outweighed by the public’s interest in the information,” Paxton argues.
“The information at issue relates to a prominent public employee’s negotiated separation agreement with a public employer. While Follins may find these records ‘embarrassing,’ none of the information at issue is of a type of information previously recognized as highly intimate or embarrassing by judicial decision or prior attorney general opinion. “And the public plainly has a legitimate interest in the job performance and dismissal or resignation agreement between a public employee and employer,” Paxton writes.
Paxton also noted that Alamo Colleges as a public entity cannot enter into a confidential separation agreement.
Follins and his attorney, Stephen Menn, have since filed an appeal against Paxton’s motion.
“There are fact issues in this case that require resolution by a trier of fact. (Follins) has filed a jury demand and paid the jury fee. (Follins) is entitled to a jury trial,” Menn writes.
Menn cites multiple precedents that show that the Texas Public Information Act was modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act and argues using federal precedents regarding the federal act.
These include a precedent that says, the requester must establish more than a bare suspicion.
In the notice of termination memorandum issued to Follins Oct. 29, the chancellor wrote, “You have once again violated expectations set for you and engaged in a pattern of unacceptable behavior.”
On Nov. 18, The Ranger requested under the Texas Public Information Act the correspondence and recordings related to Follins’ conduct.
The attorney general ruled in The Ranger’s favor Feb. 24.
“Upon review we find none of the submitted information at issue is highly intimate or embarrassing information and of no legitimate public interest, and it may not be withheld …,” the attorney general’s decision said.
Menn argues issues that should be ruled on by a jury are whether Follins’ privacy issue is nontrivial, whether Follins would be harmed by disclosure of the information and whether the information sheds light on governmental action.
“(Follins) is a highly compensated college administrator,” Menn wrote in the lawsuit and appeal responding to the motion for summary judgment. “… In such an environment, reputation is everything.”
Follins resigned from Alamo Colleges Aug. 6 after receiving a “firm” offer from Houston Community College, forgoing the remaining $90,000 in salary due to him.
The offer was later rescinded after the potential employer investigated the allegations, Follins wrote in an affidavit. The affidavit reiterated the potential harm that could befall him if information on his termination at Alamo Colleges is made public.
“My reputation as a competent college administrator will be severely and negatively impacted,” Follins writes. “The destruction of my reputation and thus my career will have a negative impact upon me and my family.”
Leslie on Tuesday praised Follins’ work as a special projects administrator for Alamo Colleges.
Margaret Maddox, an attorney speaking for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told The Ranger Wednesday that the case could go either way.
“Typically, I fall on the side that the documents should be released, but it’s really up to a judge to decide one way or another,” Maddox said.
“Any contract and agreements involving public officials and their governance the citizens have a right to know,” FOIFT Director Kelley Shannon said. “Some may argue that privacy trumps the public’s right to know, but it is their right to know and hold public officials accountable.”
Click here for: Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion for summary judgement.
Click here for: Dr. Craig Follins’ appeal against Paxton’s motion.