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Will We Ever Learn Who Uses VisitDallas’ Suite at American Airlines?

Herein, a frustratingly dumb story about an open records request that the city is apparently refusing to fulfill.
By Shawn Shinneman |

In February, when VisitDallas faced a City Council committee over its fate, a few Council members caused a minor off-microphone distraction at the revelation that some of their colleagues were using the nonprofit’s suite at the American Airlines Center.

Then-Councilman Philip Kingston later told me they were comparing notes.

“Have you used the suite?” “No, no, no. Have you?” That sort of thing.

Former Councilman and runner up mayoral candidate Scott Griggs suggested that there were far too many nightly events for VisitDallas to always have someone to wine and dine. He suspected that the tickets were often dumped instead to VisitDallas employees and board members, as well as Council. I then filed an open records request to see who uses it. It feels like 17 years ago, but the city’s online open records portal tells me the submission happened on February 20. This happened in the wake of an audit that found the city’s partner in tourism and convention promotions had basically no way of evaluating how it was spending taxpayer dollars, and had been illegally commingling funds in separate bank accounts. The highly-paid CEO Phillip Jones stepped down in its wake.

You might remember from my explorations here that the city can appeal to the Attorney General for a ruling on whether it has to release the information I have asked for. Dallas did, claiming Texas law allows it to keep us from learning about who uses the suite.

As a third party, VisitDallas got to throw in its two cents, as well. And in a lengthy letter signed by CFO Matthew Jones, the nonprofit argued that releasing information about who uses the suite would be damaging. The letter says it would give competitors an unfair look at who it’s courting. VisitDallas doesn’t want Visit Houston to know it’s courting the American Whatever Association for its next convention, because Visit Houston might not know yet that AWA is moving its annual get-together.

In my reading, it’s not clear exactly what the city was trying to keep under wraps. But it’s very clear that VisitDallas had no interest in denying us a list of elected officials who have used the suite. It didn’t care about that part. The organization’s response says that flat out.

The AG’s ruling, which was returned on May 28, seems to follow that logic. It agrees with VisitDallas’ claims that some of the information could be harmful and give a competitor an edge. Everything else, it orders Dallas to release.

Again, that was May 28. The city had 10 business days from there to give us the information. (That would’ve been June 11.) As of July 3, it still hasn’t. Open Records Manager Jeri Carter Lawson at one point flatly said that the city never received the ruling. Meanwhile, Assistant Attorney General Jesse Harvey told me the office sent it the same day it sent mine, and if the city wants another copy, all it has to do is ask. Carter has ignored my requests that the city reach back out to the Office of the Attorney General to re-send it. I would send mine over, but the city’s version contains specifics that I don’t get to see, so my version won’t help.

We are now more than four months past my original request for the records and 25 business days since the AG issued the ruling. Will we ever get to see who uses that damn suite?

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