WESLACO — Unless The Monitor erases an article about mismanagement and financial problems at Weslaco schools from the newspaper’s website, the district has threatened to take “any legal action necessary to preserve its rights.”
The article described how Texas Education Agency auditors and a hired attorney investigated financial decisions during former Superintendent Richard Rivera’s tenure. Among them: Why the district took $2 million from a health insurance fund and used the money to build a press box at Bobby Lackey Stadium, and how the superintendent’s brother earned incentive pay — but no one else did.
The Monitor also published a confidential memo to the Weslaco school trustees, which described the financial problems. That prompted a threatening letter from the district, which argued the memo is protected by attorney-client privilege.
“Remove the article entitled ‘Investigations reveal mismanagement in Weslaco ISD,’ which specifically references the content of the memo from any Internet websites under the control of The Monitor, and refrain from further publishing or circulating this article or any version thereof,” Weslaco’s attorney wrote in the Nov. 6 letter, which also demands The Monitor reveal who leaked the confidential report.
Texas law protects journalists and their sources, and The Monitor has no intention of removing the article, said Executive Editor Steve Fagan. No one has challenged the article’s accuracy.
“There will be no alteration or change or deletion of anything we’ve done,” Fagan said, adding that The Monitor had consulted with the newspaper’s attorney about the letter.
Journalists often publish newsworthy but confidential documents from government entities, an activity protected by the First Amendment.
“I don’t know that any lawyer for a school district wants to file a frivolous, basically unwinnable lawsuit,” Fagan said. If the Weslaco district filed a lawsuit and lost, Fagan said The Monitor would seek to recoup legal fees from the district.
In an interview, Weslaco school district attorney Fernando Saenz said he didn’t expect The Monitor to reveal who leaked the memo and acknowledged Texas law protects journalists from revealing their sources.
“And, again, you know, it’s just a formality,” Saenz said, emphasizing that the letter was designed only to protect the memo’s integrity and the district’s attorney-client privilege.
If The Monitor doesn’t comply with the school district’s demands, the letter threatens to take legal action.
“I think people know about the proverbial chilling effect that the threat of legal action can have on the public and the press,” said media attorney John Bussian, who represents The Monitor’s parent company, AIM Media Texas. “This kind of letter is a perfect illustration of how the government can try to intimidate the press.”