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OU awarded 2nd Black Hole Award in 3 years

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This article was updated at 12:22 p.m. Wednesday to correctly show the university has filled nearly 400 requests since September.

OU was awarded Freedom of Information Oklahoma’s Black Hole Award for the second time in three years Tuesday, being designated as an institution that has notably “thwarted the free flow of information.”

FOI Oklahoma is an organization centered on “promoting open and transparent government in Oklahoma” through providing educational and legal resources for citizens to better navigate the state’s freedom of information laws, including the Oklahoma Open Records and Open Meeting acts. 

After selecting the OU Board of Regents as the Black Hole recipient in 2019 following the secretive selection of former OU President James Gallogly, and the appointment of Harroz as Gallogly’s interim successor in a six-hour meeting that took place almost entirely in executive session and ended just before 2 a.m., OU received the award again this year alongside the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Andy Moore, FOI Oklahoma’s executive director, told The Daily the group’s awards committee met in September to determine this year’s award recipients. OU was selected primarily based on the university’s continued legal fight to withhold the Jones Day report — a collection of documents detailing the investigation of misreported donorship numbers and sexual misconduct allegations against former OU President David Boren — from public view.

“I think the university is saying that, technically, personnel records are not required to be released by the Open Records Act unless they result in the termination of somebody,” Moore said. “And the fact that President Boren resigned, I think, is indicative that this was certainly all related. … Very often, groups like the university could — and in our opinion, should — be as transparent as possible, and seek not just to fulfill the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.”

OU was sued by the Oklahoma City-based outlet NonDoc Media for refusing to release the Jones Day report under the Oklahoma Open Records Act. In a statement after the lawsuit was filed, OU argued that releasing the documents “(serves) the public’s curiosity — not its interest.”

In its response to the lawsuit, the university wrote that records regarding investigations of “misconduct allegations involving an employee” are not subject to public release under state statute 51 O.S. § 24A.5(1)(a).

The cited law reads that records “protected by a state evidentiary privilege such as the attorney-client privilege, the work product immunity from discovery and the identity of informer privileges” are “specifically required by law to be kept confidential.”

The university had paid Jones Day in excess of $1.5 million for its services as of July 2019, according to the Oklahoman. Moore said citizens have “the right to know” the details of any record related to extensive expenditures of public funds. 

Open records fulfillment at OU has remained spotty even with documents that don’t draw legal disagreements, however, as noted by numerous Oklahoma journalists following a Sept. 21 Twitter thread posted by The Daily. Some media members covering the university had waited up to two years for their requests to be fulfilled.

Former Oklahoma legislator Ron Sharp and senate author of the original Open Records Act Stratton Taylor both told The Daily that many state agencies have long toed the line of doing the bare minimum to respond to requests while not outright violating the law. 

Moore said OU’s fight to withhold the Jones Day report is just another symptom of the larger, state-wide issue.

“We see this at universities, we see this at state agencies too, frankly, that an increasing number of government entities will refuse to comply with the law and not follow it,” Moore said. “We’ve seen a number of lawsuits that have been necessary to force the government to do what they’re technically required to do by law.”

Sharp and Taylor each said the law’s lack of a defined time period to respond to requests makes it one of the weakest in the nation. In 2020, Sharp attempted to amend the law to provide a 30-day period for government agencies to fulfill requests, but the proposed bill never received a hearing. 

There are still state legislators that Moore said he hopes will continue to push for transparent governance, however.

“I know that there are a number of legislators that I have regular contact with who have similar concerns about government entities that are hiding information from the public or trying to delay or otherwise obfuscate what’s happening,” Moore said. “I think, and I hope, that we've got some allies in Legislature that are willing to fight for the public's right to oversee their government.”

An OU spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Daily OU is "committed to ensuring the public's right to know and be informed about the operations of the university."

"The Open Records Office follows guidance provided by the Open Records Act for processing and completing requests," the spokesperson wrote. "Requests are handled as quickly as reasonably possible once all responsive information is received. Delays in access are primarily due to the scope of the request and the time required to prepare requested documents."

According to the spokesperson, the number of requests sent to the university have more than doubled since 2011, with 708 requests in 2011 and 1,737 in 2020.

OU has filled almost 400 requests since the hiring of an executive director for the Open Records Office in September 2021, according to the spokesperson.

"The university is investing in the Open Records Office to ensure timelier responses," the spokesperson wrote. "Within the Office of Legal Counsel, Open Records now has access to additional legal resources and an outside vendor for legal review as needed. The office will also soon implement a new records management system."

Blake Douglas joined the OU Daily news desk in October 2018, and is currently the editor-in-chief. Previously, Blake has served as an intern reporter, senior news reporter, summer news editor and news managing editor.

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