Law blocking identities of businesses receiving disaster aid could be undone

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A law shielding the names of businesses and the amounts of disaster aid money they receive could be undone by new legislation filed March 10 by State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.

Capriglione’s bill, HB 3663, would amend a law written in 2019 that sought to protect seniors receiving disaster aid from fraud by blocking their names and addresses from public disclosure, according to the original law’s creator, Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.

Deshotel previously told KXAN that lists of disaster aid recipients could be requested by “scam artists” and used to target people that receive government assistance for things like home repairs after a hurricane. Prior to passage, Deshotel added an amendment to his legislation to shield businesses. Deshotel said he added businesses to the law, because there were concerns that proprietary information included in disaster aid applications could be disclosed in a public information request.

But more than companies’ proprietary information has been kept hidden. A KXAN review of Office of Attorney General records found cities have cited the law and successfully shielded the identity of businesses, including nonprofits, that have received millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded disaster aid.

Citing a 2019 law, the City of Austin redacted nearly all the information that would identify the recipients of more than $24 million in COVID-19 disaster relief.

Deshotel said the law has “been misused” and suppressing those business names has been an unintended consequence of his legislation. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit that advocates for access to public records, meetings and transparent government, also expressed concern with the application of the law.

Capriglione’s bill amends the current law by removing one section that stops disclosure of “the name, tax identification number, address, and telephone number of a business entity or an owner of a business entity that applies for state or federal disaster recovery funds,” according to the bill.

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