Eight soldiers and a cadet died June 2, 2016, in flood-swollen Owl Creek on Fort Hood, and the public still doesn’t have all of the facts surrounding the training accident.
That’s because the Army’s report, released more than a year later, redacted nearly 14 pages under the label “rationale for conclusion of analysis.” All five findings and five sets of recommendations were also covered over.
The Herald had requested the report under the Freedom of Information Act to let the public know what happened and how deaths could be prevented. It later requested an unredacted version of the report.
March 11-17 is the annual Sunshine Week, designed to remind Americans that information is important to the success of democracy, and public information belongs to the people, not to a few government employees. The Texas Public Information Act and the federal FOI Act state the public’s right to receive information from the local, state and federal governments.
“Access to public information is essential to our precious First Amendment right of free speech to speak out about government,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in a March 9 article. Go to: bit.ly/2GeH5MJ
The Herald sought documents last summer that would enlighten the public about Killeen.
A special audit of Killeen finances was underway in 2017 and auditors said they were having trouble finding documents. The Herald requested city records on document retention and found city staff destroyed documents as the council was reviewing bids for an auditor.
Herald research also found documents should not be destroyed when an audit has been initiated, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, which sets the rules.
First Amendment Attorney Joseph Larsen said it was “astounding” that the city department heads would proceed with document destruction. See the story: bit.ly/2vkzLMm
The Herald also sought documents related to the Killeen Independent School District.
With special education issues and a proposed $426 million bond issue being major topics in the district, the need for information was almost constant.
Freedom of Information requests were submitted to KISD on Oct. 17, Oct. 20 and Oct. 31, to list just a few.
The Oct. 17 request asked KISD for information on the number of parent requests the district had received to view video from cameras in special education classrooms from 2016 to 2017, and whether these requests were approved or denied. While the request was never fully answered, the information received was used in an article about cameras in special education classrooms. bit.ly/2FvxQGQ
The Oct. 20 request was directed to the Texas Education Agency, seeking the number of complaints and/or requests for due process hearings filed by parents of special education students against the district for 2015-2017. While the information available, due to privacy restrictions, was limited, the numbers were used in an article about how KISD had failed to make adequate progress providing services to special education students since audits in 2015. bit.ly/2GcvFsJ
Another FOIA request was made to KISD on Oct. 31, asking for copies of district demographer Jeff Heckathorn’s calculations for student population growth from 2013-2017 and for 2018-2022. These numbers were used in various articles on the reason the district had proposed the $426 million bond issue. bit.ly/2GiRgQx
The Herald requested a copy of a fatal shooting report and dashcam video from the Bell County Sheriff’s Department and Texas Rangers into the Lyle Blanchard shooting Aug. 30, 2016.
Bell County argued against its release in a letter to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, saying that the officer involved hadn’t been charged with a crime and the department didn’t need to release the information.
The Texas Public Information Act says it’s up to the discretion of the governmental entity to release information. Texas Rangers also requested an attorney general’s opinion, arguing the case was still open even though it had been completed.
After repeated calls and appeals to the attorney general’s office, the Rangers released the information, showing some conflicting testimony by the deputy and casting authoritative doubt on Bell County Sheriff Eddy Lange’s descriptions of the incident as a “gunfight” between the deputy and victim. Blanchard was drunk and unarmed, according to the report.
The Army, in addition to covering up information available on the rollover accident in its main report, also failed to give the public a copy of the Fort Hood unit’s report. The unit report had been given to deceased soldiers’ family members, who shared it with the Herald, which shared it with the public. The Army still hasn’t given the unit report to the Herald and public. The unit report left many questions unanswered that were not publicly answered in Army’s report released later. In addition, less than a year after the Owl Creek deaths, another soldier disappeared while driving across Clear Creek on Fort Hood. He was later declared dead. A diver helping with the search also died.
In addition to reports on flooding deaths, Fort Hood also failed to provide information about a pair of security breaches at post gates in 2016. In one case, a car fleeing police drove through Clear Creek gate then later fled through another gate, making a clean getaway.
The Herald filed FOI Act requests for completed investigations in those cases to find out what went wrong and what Fort Hood is doing to protect the people at Fort Hood.
“Your request is being processed,” was Fort Hood’s latest reply, last March.
For more, go to kdhnews.com.
Staff writers Kyle Blankenship, Jacob Brooks, David A. Bryant and Julie Ferraro contributed to this report.