Updated April 1, 2023 - 3:39 pm
The Review-Journal’s first “What Are They Hiding?” column questioned the failure of CSN and UNLV to release public records that are open to inspection under state law. Byron Brooks, the elected chairman of the state’s Board of Regents, responded with a letter to the editor expressing his commitment to transparency.
But his letter to the Review-Journal’s editorial page misstated the law on personnel records — and he used tax dollars to have an outside public relations consultant review and email the response to the Review-Journal.
When the Review-Journal called Brooks on Tuesday to discuss his commitment to transparency, the letter and his use of a P.R. firm, he failed to respond to voicemails left at his office and his cellphone and an email sent to his office.
And it took multiple requests over nearly a month for a Nevada System of Higher Education lawyer to release the billing statements from the public relations company that helped craft Brooks’ letter.
Glenn Cook, executive editor of the Review-Journal, said Nevada government agencies often tout transparency to hide the fact that they are not transparent.
“Nothing says ‘openness’ like an elected official declining to answer questions about openness while paying a public relations specialist to send an email about openness,” Cook said. “All while hiding public records that undoubtedly will make the higher education system look bad.
“You can’t make this stuff up.”
Personnel records withheld
In February, the Review-Journal published a “What Are They Hiding?” column that questioned UNLV and CSN’s refusal to release key personnel records.
State law does not exempt the records from release. The schools cited their own internal policies to block access to the work history of former CSN employee Robert Telles, who is charged with killing Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German, and records about workplace misconduct allegations against a former top UNLV executive.
After the column ran, Brooks commissioned Trosper Public Relations to send a letter to the Review-Journal opinion section on March 4, saying he supports “NSHE’s commitment to disclose public records that are not otherwise made confidential by law.”
Brooks wrote that the records requested by the newspaper are “confidential personnel records,” but he failed to cite an exemption to the state’s public records law that allows the schools to withhold the documents.
Nevada Supreme Court rulings in 2018 shot down attempts by public entities to withhold records based on their internal policies, saying agency regulations cannot be used to thwart the Nevada Public Records Act.
To limit “the NPRA would create an opportunity for government organizations to make an end-run around the NPRA by drafting internal regulations that render documents confidential by law,” Justice Mark Gibbons wrote in Clark County School District v. Las Vegas Review-Journal. The rest of the justices concurred with his opinion.
The court made a similar ruling in Comstock Residents Association v. Lyon County Board of Commissioners.
The Review-Journal also wanted to determine how much Trosper was paid to email the letter so it filed a public records request March 6. Associate General Counsel Lynda King provided a screenshot of Trosper’s $5,500 monthly retainer 11 days after the request. NSHE was searching for other records, she wrote, but the documents about “work product” resided with Trosper. Trosper runs a private company that is not subject to the Public Records Act.
Elizabeth Trosper, CEO of Trosper Public Relations in Henderson, said her firm billed about $370 editing Brooks’ letter and contacting RJ Editorial Page Editor John Kerr to see if he would consider publishing it.
“There are suggestions we propose and it’s up to the client whether to accept them,” she said.
Billing release delayed
On Tuesday, after more than a dozen emails back and forth, King released Trosper’s Feb. 28 billing statement that showed Trosper billed NSHE for nearly three hours dealing with Brooks’ letter — at a cost of more than $500, records show.
Trosper said about three-quarters of an hour of that time was spent on another NSHE matter.
The “What Are They Hiding?” column was created to shame public officials into being open with the hardworking people who pay all of government’s bills.
“Unfortunately,” Cook said, “the higher education system appears to have no shame at all. Maybe someone could teach a class on that?”
Have you been wrongly denied access to public information? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Arthur Kane at email@example.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is editor of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.