UVALDE, Texas — Months after the Uvalde school shooting, the public and grieving families have continued pressing for answers about what happened on May 24.
But behind the scenes, a group of Texas lawmakers have gotten information from the confidential case file by signing non-disclosure agreements with the Department of Public Safety (DPS), the KVUE Defenders and KVUE's news partners at the Austin American-Statesman have learned.
The agreements are a highly unusual extension of secrecy in such a high-profile case.
Some lawmakers say that they wanted or needed the information to help independently investigate the shooting or to draft legislation stemming from the tragedy to present when the session starts next month.
The lawmakers – from both sides of the aisle and from both chambers – entered into contracts with DPS to obtain portions of the Uvalde case file but promised to keep the information private.
Several are on committees appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in the shooting's aftermath.
They include State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), who chaired a 3-person House committee to investigate the shooting. Burrows released a portion of the Robb Elementary School hallway video in July. DPS officials will not say whether they plan to take action against him for a possible violation of the agreement. Lawmakers face up to a $1,000 fine for a violation.
"There is no manual out there to tell you how to navigate an NDA in a situation like this,” Burrows told KVUE Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski. “I announced to the public at large my intention, and I told DPS specifically what I was going to do, why I was going to do it and when I was going to do it. I felt law enforcement at large had ample notice of my intentions and had an ample opportunity to try to dissuade or stop me if they so desired."
Aside from the committees, Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose district includes Uvalde, signed the agreement after unsuccessfully suing DPS for the information. He is the only person of the six who has already filed bills related to the shooting – one to raise the legal limit to purchase certain firearms and the other to compensate victims' families.
"I have to be able to start this session in a manner and means by which I will be able to make certain assertions," Gutierrez said.
Government transparency advocates say that these agreements are not necessary and that, by now, all of the information should be available to the public, not just certain lawmakers.
"It sounds to me like these non-disclosure agreements are just gameplaying with information," said Kelley Shannon, director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "We don't need gameplaying, we need to put information out there, be transparent with the public."
State law does allow this arrangement, saying that lawmakers who receive confidential information can be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
"I think it puts lawmakers in a bad situation because they are bound by duty to communicate with and be answerable to their constituents," Shannon added. "In the case of state legislators, that means we the people of Texas, and non-disclosure agreements like this, put them in a bad place where they can't be open and fulfil their duty to open and communicate and share information with their constituents."
The agreements say that lawmakers can only make copies of information if it is absolutely necessary, that they can share them with staff and that the records should be destroyed when they are no longer needed.
DPS says it does not track how often lawmakers have signed similar agreements in other cases, but transparency advocates say that they have not often seen them used in this way in this scope of a case.
DPS continues to say – as it has for months – that it is not releasing the information at the request of the Uvalde district attorney, who insists the release of records might interfere with the possible prosecution of officers who failed to respond that day.