Democrats Question Privacy Rules in Wake of Texas Redistricting Dust-up

Posted June 4, 2003 at 9:19am

Having already cried foul over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) use of federal resources to track down AWOL Texas state legislators, House Democrats have added a new layer to the dispute, saying the controversy opens questions about the availability of information on private flights.

Investigations are under way as to whether federal and state resources were misused in the manhunt for Texas Democrats who walked out on the state Legislature last month to prevent the passage of a DeLay-backed redistricting plan. The Majority Leader had requested Federal Aviation Authority assistance in his search for those Lone Star State lawmakers.

And on Monday, Reps. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking members on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, respectively, wrote Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta questioning the appropriateness of making available to the public information about the flight patterns and destinations of private planes.

“It is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which a terrorist could use information about the flight patterns of private aircraft to plan or execute an attack,” the Members wrote.

The questions arise from a pending review of whether “Federal Aviation Administration officials acted appropriately when they provided assistance to U.S. Majority Leader Tom Delay in finding an aircraft belonging to former Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Pete Laney during recent disputes involving the Texas state Legislature,” the letter states.

Delay has acknowledged that one of his staffers asked the FAA about Laney’s plane as Republicans tried to locate the 50-some Democratic state lawmakers who fled to Oklahoma in May to prevent Republicans from introducing the redistricting bill.

Turner and Oberstar have asked Mineta to answer five specific questions relating to the matter including: “What information does the FAA provide, directly to the public or to commercial websites that may be accessed by the public, about the airports at which a private aircraft takes off and lands, and the location of a private aircraft during a flight?”

And, “are the operators of private aircraft given the right to have the foregoing information withheld from public disclosure? If so, how are operators made aware of this right?”

The two Democrats have requested a response by June 9.

A spokesman for Delay said the Majority Leader takes no issue with the substance of the letter but asks whether Democrats are committing the same sin of which they are accusing Republicans.

If the issue is misuse of government resources for political purposes, then Turner and Oberstar had better legitimately be concerned about the issues they raise and not just trying to score political points, “or they’re guilty of the same thing they are accusing others of,” Delay spokesman Jonathan Grella said.