FBI request for info on Uvalde shooter raises questions about interagency sharing

A public information request created a 'difficult position,' say city officials.

August 2, 2022, 3:54 PM

In the days immediately following the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, city leaders were bombarded with requests for information from journalists covering the attack. More than a hundred submissions were sent to city hall and the police department under the state's public information law, to request documents and video that could help make sense of a mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

But it wasn't just members of the media who were seeking such records; the FBI was too, according to government emails newly obtained by ABC News.

In the wake of one of the deadliest school shootings in America's history, the nation's premier investigative agency used, among other means, the Texas Public Information Act to seek relevant information -- the same method used by news reporters and TV producers.

The FBI would not comment on the record as to why it used a process geared toward public information requests as part of its official investigation. But state officials have noted that the aftermath of the shooting has been plagued by a lack of communication on the part of numerous agencies -- much to the frustration of victims' family members who still have unanswered questions about the attack.

Emails show the that the FBI ended up getting the information it was seeking -- but not through the Public Information Act request.

The requests were made on May 26 and May 27 by personnel from the FBI's field office in San Antonio, Texas, who submitted three separate public records requests with the city of Uvalde seeking, among other things, police reports associated with the shooter and any reports associated with the home where he was living with his grandmother, who he shot in the face before heading to Robb Elementary.

A law firm representing the city of Uvalde told the FBI that its requests should be directed to the Uvalde Police Department, rather than the city itself, and that public records requests from the FBI put the city in a "difficult legal position."

Police deploy in a hallway after Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, 2022 in a still image from police body camera video.
City Of Uvalde Police Department via Reuters

"The state rules do not allow for an intergovernmental transfer of records with a federal agency," a representative from the law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech wrote to the FBI in an email.

"Additionally, the rules require that the requests from your agency be treated in the same manner as all other requestors," the email said. "Unfortunately, compliance with the rules is counterproductive and does not make any sense in this situation. However, we cannot advise our client to 'not follow the rules.'"

The law firm suggested that the Uvalde Police Department could provide the FBI with the records it requested without having to rely on the Texas Public Information Act.

"The provision of records would be under separate law that allows for cooperation with other agencies for law enforcement purposes," the law firm said.

On June 16, the FBI emailed the law firm, saying, "We no longer need these records," and withdrew its requests.

Uvalde:365 is a continuing ABC News series reported from Uvalde and focused on the Texas community and how it forges on in the shadow of tragedy.

A spokesperson for the city of Uvalde told ABC News that "initially, the FBI's request was treated like open records because of the sheer volume the city received," which the spokesperson said included 244 open records requests related to the shooting.

"But the city inevitably cooperated with the FBI and made sure they had what they needed," said the spokesperson.

The information was provided by the Uvalde Police Department, the spokesperson confirmed.

"The city has processed all open records requests in accordance with the laws that guide us," said the spokesperson.

The emails obtained by ABC News, which themselves were obtained through a public records request, also included requests from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the state's top law-enforcement agency, that were made directly to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office for information related to the shooting and the suspect.

Similar to a request made by the City of Uvalde to the AG's office, the Texas DPS initially asked that this information be withheld from the public. In an email to Paxton, DPS officials argued that the records needed to be kept confidential because the public "knowing the location where surveillance assets and Department employees focus during operations, knowing how many law enforcement personnel are participating and their response capabilities, will compromise law enforcement purposes by enabling criminals to anticipate weakness in law enforcement procedures."

Meanwhile, DPS officials confirmed to ABC News that they received requests from the FBI relating to the case and shared evidence with them through intergovernmental transfers.

DPS officials also said recently that they had, themselves, shared some information with the public that had been requested though the Public Information Act.

"DPS has released some emails and text messages in response to specific public information requests," a DPS spokesperson said, adding that the agency "is waiting for rulings" from the AG's office on several requests.

"The first ruling should be issued sometime in the middle of August," the spokesperson said. "The Texas Ranger investigation remains active and ongoing. We are also waiting for further instruction from the Uvalde County DA with regard to the release of additional information."

The mystery and confusion surrounding the shooting cropped up almost immediately after the attack, as several law enforcement and elected officials shared misleading or contradictory information in the hours and days following the massacre.

"The fear of a coverup is palpable here, and while most see it as simply part of an intragovernmental 'blame game,' others have made wild accusations that authorities are sweeping some major scandal under the rug," a Texas House of Representatives committee wrote in an extensive report on the shooting released two weeks ago.

"It does become harder to proclaim the truth when it is so opaque. Most fundamentally, there has been a loss of trust in government," the report said.

In response to many media outlets' requests for records and other information, the city of Uvalde has claimed that "any release of records" would "impede a thorough and complete investigation." Several media outlets, including ABC News, are planning to mount a joint challenge to government agencies' limited response to requests.

ABC News' Mike Levine contributed to this report.