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How one man's open records obsession sparked a fight over transparency and power in East Texas

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How one man's open records obsession sparked a fight over transparency and power in East Texas

Nov 29, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Jess Huff
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How one man's open records obsession sparked a fight over transparency and power in East Texas
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David Stua in front of the Angelina County Court House in Lufkin on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (Joel Andrews for The Texas Tribune)

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Update: Visiting Judge Earl Stover III dismissed both of David Stua’s cases Wednesday morning after this story was published.

LUFKIN — On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, some of Angelina County’s top elected leaders stopped what they were doing to gather in a county courtroom and listen to resident David Stua accuse officeholders of a conspiracy to silence him.

Five years earlier, Stua was arrested on allegations he solicited minors. Over the next four years, the East Texan faced multiple additional complaints against him including aggravated perjury, burglary, the attempt to commit sexual performance of a child, online solicitation of a minor and attempt to commit indecency with a child by exposure.

All but the aggravated perjury charges and one count of criminal trespass were dropped by the time he landed in prison in 2022.

When he was released three months later, Stua had lost his small business and his home, which burned in a fire.

He’s convinced that the charges were retribution for his eight-year-long quest for local government records. He’s filed thousands of open records requests in that time, angering some local officials who view them as burdensome harassment. Now he wants justice. In two lawsuits, Stua is trying to remove District Attorney Janet Cassels from her job.

“Today’s the day that someone is gonna tell the district attorney you can’t charge people with criminal offenses that don’t exist and you have to comply with public information requests,” Stua told District Judge Earl Stover III, a visiting judge assigned to review Stua’s case to remove Cassels from her job.

[Seeking lower electricity rates, residents in two East Texas towns hope the state will intervene]

Cassel, in an interview, denied Stua's frenetic open records requests were linked to the charges he has faced. And, she said, her office has followed the law in processing his requests.

Stua’s case highlights the tension between the public’s right to know and a government’s ability to get work done. And it opens a window into small-town politics of Texas lore, where everyone knows everyone.

Once a tool used largely by journalists and concerned residents to hold government accountable, open records requests have increasingly become weaponized by political operatives and conspiracy theorists. Stua was an early adopter of the tactic. His avalanche of records requests predates the recent spike in requests across the state and nation. Nevertheless, his actions, and those of people like him, led Texas lawmakers to update state law in the Texas Public Information Act that governs how open records requests are to be handled — an attempt to provide a modicum of relief to small governmental entities.

Many across the U.S. have adopted the practice of filing open records requests in an effort to prove conspiracy theories. One Pennsylvania county elections office told the National Association of Counties the number of requests following former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 prevented them from focusing on the 2022 election. NBC News reported similar complaints in Florida, Michigan, Arizona and Virginia.

Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas Executive Director Kelley Shannon has spent years searching for a balance of transparency and good government. She says the solution begins with educating all parties on the best use of the law.

“A big part of what we do is education — we educate the general public, we educate lawmakers, we educate local officials,” she said.

She’s glad many Texas residents know they have the right to information and how to get it. But it’s not always seen as a blessing by local governments.

“What you have are a few folks around the state who make a lot of public information act requests and tend to overburden a local government — or, at least, that’s how the local government portrays it,” she said.

In response to Stua’s actions, Shannon worked with state Rep. Trent Ashby, an Angelina Republican, to pass legislation allowing local governments to limit how much time they spend answering requests and require requesters pay all outstanding fees before new requests are filled.

Stua believes he is holding the local government accountable through his actions.

“I see a lot of problems with people in our government not wanting to help people,” he said. “They’re for anything that gets them a title, like being a commissioner, or county judge, or county treasurer.”

His work is not entirely altruistic. He chooses which entities he requests documents from based on whether they are kind to him and if they answer his requests willingly, he said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

He declared war on Angelina County after officials quoted large fees to provide records and sought opinions from the attorney general's office on whether the information needed to be released — a process that can take months to resolve.

Many local governments seek such an opinion. The number of requests for opinions submitted to the attorney general rose from 7,316 per year in 2002 to 40,031 in 2022.

Multiple county officials throughout East Texas declined to comment for this article, some citing fear of retribution.

Nacogdoches District Clerk Loretta Cammack, who has held the office for 15 years, said she views the records in her custody as public property.

“They’re public records,” she said. “And I don’t think I’ve ever withheld any information from it. I believe that a part of my duty is to make those available.”

Stua rarely sought records from the neighboring East Texas county and said he never ran into any road blocks getting what he wanted.

Cammack does not recall working with Stua. But she has had her fair share of large record requests. For example, a doctor in town wanted information related to a criminal case, which had about 2,000 pages of documents.

“It was going through and making sure that each of those pleadings was complete and put in chronological order,” she said. “It’s not just pressing a button and then here’s your copy.”

It’s about quality control and ensuring requesters believe her office is transparent, she said.

[Texas’ open records law is 50 years old — and routinely flouted]

Stua, 60, has lived in Angelina County most of his life. Despite his decades-long conflict with the local government, he doesn’t want to live anywhere else. Standing at 5 feet 10 inches tall, Stua’s frame is thin from months of rough living and using a bicycle as a primary mode of transportation. In the past, he's dyed his gray hair black to feel young. Even in a relaxed pose, Stua buzzes with an energy that grows as he discusses his 13-year war with local government for transparency.

Stua’s lawsuit seeks to remove District Attorney Janet Cassels from office for filing false charges. Stua alleges the charges were brought in retaliation for his frequent open records requests.

This type of lawsuit follows a formula written into the state’s constitution. While the legal tactic to remove public officials is rarely used in the state, it’s been en vogue in East Texas. Just last year, a county resident filed a similar suit against Angelina County Commissioner Terry Pitts. The case was dismissed.

For Stua’s lawsuit to move forward, it must be approved by the visiting district judge and then assigned an outside attorney to represent Stua. Angelina County is currently waiting on Judge Stovar’s opinion.

If the judge agrees to move Stua’s lawsuits forward, the case will be tried like many other lawsuits — which Stua wants.

He never received a criminal trial and believes this is a way to prove his theory he was targeted.

Cassel inherited the Stua's cases after she was appointed to the job in 2020, and she said she her predecessors believed they had enough evidence to convict.

“Those were not initiated by me and had nothing to do with open records,” she said.

Ultimately, Stua took a plea deal for multiple aggravated perjury charges stemming from the original charges — which was dropped after the alleged victim decided to drop the case — and agreed to a lesser criminal trespass charge.

“If he had wanted a trial on the merits of that charge he could have had it. He did not,” Cassels said.

Stua began submitting open records requests after an investigator with the Angelina County & Cities Health District in 2010 cited him for sewage seeping to the surface on his property — the result of malfunctioning sewage equipment. The investigator sought additional charges and increased the fines over the next few months.

“Stupid old me, I'm just kind of a person if you threaten me — I'm gonna fight back,” Stua said. “I just don't cower down.”

He retaliated with open records requests.

In 12 different requests, Stua sought health district employment data, estimated and actual numbers of complaints made by residents including their names and addresses, information on potential appellants dissatisfied with health district decisions, all information on the case lodged against him, all complaints made against homeowners in the last 90 days as well as their addresses and what type of septic system they used.

Seven of his requests were answered, three were requests for documentation the health district isn’t required to keep and two requests, specifically regarding addresses of homeowners, were considered confidential.

One year later, Stua filed another 123 open records requests. A fight with the health department’s attorney — Jimmy Cassels, the district attorney’s husband, now a judge — prompted Stua to file even more with different local governments. All were connected to Jimmy Cassels.

From 2011 to 2017 Stua submitted volumes of open records requests to the cities of Alto, Zavalla, Huntington, Diboll and Hudson — easing up only when the cities proved they would work with him amicably.

He also began sending volumes of open records requests to Justice of the Peace Billy Ball. In 2014, Ball told county commissioners at a public meeting he could not answer the requests in a reasonable amount of time. He said it would cost nearly $32 million and would take his staff 1,927 years to respond.

Stua’s requests uncovered mostly benign government infractions. For example, Stua said in an interview he learned the county failed to include certain documents required by law into a budget request. The county fixed the issue, Stua said.

Then, in December 2018, Stua was arrested on allegations he solicited a sexual performance by a minor. The charge stemmed from a Facebook Live video he broadcast, in which he argued the word “circumcision” ought to be allowed to be said in the college library. He had been removed from the college campus in an earlier altercation as a result of using the word, Stua said.

In response, he approached random students asking if they wanted evidence he was “for circumcision.”

Two of those students were high schoolers participating in a dual enrollment program. He said his evidence was a certificate he created for himself saying he was circumcised. He did not intend to expose himself, he said.

The warrant came days later.

“At no point did I ever ask anybody if they wanted to see my penis, my genitalia, my male circumcision or any word like that,” Stua said.

Two more warrants arrived in 2019 for attempted burglary. And he was charged in May 2021 on numerous counts, including aggravated perjury from the original charges.

He sat in jail for more than a year.

All charges against Stua but three were dismissed in 2022. He was sentenced to four years in prison for aggravated perjury and one year in county jail for criminal trespass. He was released three months after entering prison because he served most of his time in the Angelina County Jail awaiting trial.

Stua acknowledges that his actions likely made accessing public records in Angelina County more difficult.

“They've learned techniques and tactics to block people from getting information,” he said.

And his own life has been ruined over what started off as a $300 fine for blackwater.

In the years he battled criminal charges with the DA’s office, Stua’s home was looted and burned down. His business, a mechanics shop, was also looted. He has struggled to keep a job since he left prison.

He has lived in a halfway house and on friends’ couches. He is now living in the carport of his destroyed home. As it gets colder, he makes a bed in a workshop that survived the fire where he has some protection from the elements.

“Maybe I've changed some things. And maybe I didn't change anything,” he said. “Some things won’t change because other people won't get behind me. They won't get behind me because all they hear is, I'm requesting millions of records and have cost millions of dollars to the county. I'm a bad guy right now.”

He said the information released to him is mostly saved to the digital cloud. He aims to create a platform for other residents to access the information he has collected for free.

His most recent requests include one sent less than 24 hours after the hearing: a list of itemized charges by court-appointed attorneys for cases between Dec. 6, 2018 and Nov. 21, 2023.

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