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Statesman fights subpoena from Texas Windstorm Insurance Association

A lawyer for the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association has subpoenaed records from the American-Statesman and two other media outlets to obtain notes, emails and other information gathered by reporters. The Statesman will fight releasing the information.

Houston lawyer Andrew McKinney, who is representing the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, wants information from the outlets — the others are Texas Public Radio in San Antonio and KRGV-TV in Weslaco — for a case in which the association is being sued by the Brownsville Independent School District over unpaid claims from Hurricane Dolly in 2008. TWIA is the quasi-governmental insurer of last resort for businesses, governmental entities and individuals in coastal Texas.

Through the Dec. 20 subpoena, McKinney is seeking the results of news gathering from stories about racist emails to and from top officials at TWIA. The lawyer for the Brownsville school district, Steve Mostyn, has charged that racism was a factor when TWIA officials denied claims made by the 98-percent Hispanic school district.

TWIA also is seeking to compel the media outlets to appear at depositions on written questions.

McKinney said he would not comment on pending litigation, and a spokeswoman for TWIA didn’t return calls.

Lawyers for the Statesman said in a motion to quash TWIA’s subpoena that the information sought by the association is privileged. The lawyers will argue that the 2010 “Texas shield law,” which is supposed to encourage whistle-blowers to reveal corruption to journalists, applies in this case and was put in place to protect journalists from being forced to turn over notes and other information compiled as part of news gathering.

Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott said turning over notes and story drafts “could have a chilling effect on the ability of a free press to gather the news.”

“When the Legislature passed the Texas shield law, they did it to avoid just this sort of thing,” Hiott said in a statement. “This subpoena isn’t even trying to answer a specific question. It’s a big fishing expedition to find out what we might have that’s relevant, needlessly dragging the press into a civil dispute between two parties.”

It was not immediately clear if Texas Public Radio or KRGV would join the Statesman in fighting the subpoenas.

Separately, Mostyn filed his own motion recently to block McKinney’s request.

“It appears to me to be just an attempt to harass and intimidate by a quasi-state agency,” Mostyn said.

A judge in Cameron County is expected to make a decision on McKinney’s request next week, Mostyn said.

The bigoted emails by TWIA officials were first reported in December by the Statesman. Some of the emails contained offensive, racist terms for minorities. Others were rants and jokes received by and forwarded to TWIA officials that disparaged undocumented immigrants, Arabs and African-Americans.

After news reports, Rep. John Smithee, a Republican from Amarillo and chairman of the House’s insurance committee, called for an investigation into TWIA and the emails, which he called disturbing and inappropriate. State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, called on the Texas Department of Insurance, which has administrative oversight of TWIA, to conduct a special inquiry.

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