Court battle brewing over request to see Broken Arrow school board's detailed billing records from law firm

Should the public know the details of what law firms do for the state and local government agencies that hire them with taxpayers' money?

"I don't really think the public is entitled to know exactly what we spend our legal bills on,” said a member of the Broken Arrow Public Schools Board of Education in a March meeting.

“I mean, I’m elected to represent the public. This is not a democracy. This is a republic. That means that I am elected and you guys trust me to make decisions and because you all don’t have the time to go into and research everything. That’s what I’m elected to do, to research and study all this stuff,” said Maryanne Flippo, who didn’t seek re-election to the school board this past spring.

In fiscal year 2007-08, the school district spent about $8,500 on legal fees, says Chris Tharp, whose children attend Broken Arrow Public Schools.

That amount increased to more than $200,000 in the 2008-09, says Tharp.

Since September 2008, Tharp and the citizens group Broken Arrow Parents for Truth have been asking for billing records that establish the nature and amount of charges incurred by the school district for legal services provided by the Tulsa firm Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold.

Tharp wants the information to determine if the school board “is spending taxpayers’ money wisely, and not to the detriment of the overall purpose for BAPS – education.”

School district officials will tell him how much the law firm has been paid but won’t provide the detailed billing records for the services provided.

Doug Mann of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold contends that attorney-client privilege shields the information from public view.

Tharp isn’t satisfied with that answer.

“I am just a taxpayer requesting copies of the legal bills per FOI. Me and some others have (been) turned down repeatedly. Well, I went ahead and hired an attorney,” Tharp recently told the FOI Oklahoma Blog.

On June 11, an attorney for Tharp requested documents demonstrating what legal services Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold has provided for the district since being hired on Aug. 6, 2008.

In turn, school board members on June 29 voted 3-2 to hire the Tulsa law firm of Crowe & Dunlevy to advise them whether to release the records.

That prompted a letter from Tharp’s attorney, Marvin Laws of Hayes Magrini & Gatewood in Oklahoma City, asking to see the district’s engagement letter with Crowe & Dunlevy and detailed billing records submitted to the district by the firm.

In Laws' June 11 letter to the school district, he referred to the Oklahoma Open Records Act's preamble:

“As the Oklahoma Constitution recognizes and guarantees, all political power is inherent in the people. Thus, it is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

The purpose of the Oklahoma Open Records Act is “to ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism & Broadcasting

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.