Bill Torpy at Large: At UGA, public information has gone to the Dogs

Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart is greeted by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, right, before briefly speaking in the Georgia Senate In February. Smart also spoke in the House during his visit to the Capitol. Brant Sanderlin / bsanderlin@ajc.com

Months before the Georgia Bulldogs’ dumpster fire of a football season started, UGA sports officials were busy laying the groundwork for what they figured would forge gridiron success — secrecy in government.

A law jammed through the legislature at midnight near the session’s end lets college athletic departments hide much of their information for 90 days before releasing it to the public. For most other government agencies, it’s three days. That’s a 30-fold increase if you’re multiplying!

I asked Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), who voted no, about that crazy night: “This is no joke and I’m not saying this facetiously or tongue-in-cheek,” he said. “But supporters were saying ‘Kirby Smart wants this. It will help with recruiting.’ “

Kirby Smart is the new UGA football coached hired away from Alabama. He’s a man whose needs must be met if the Dawgs are again to play bowl games in places other than Shreveport.

And so, the law was twisted to obscene lengths, opening the door for other government agencies to try to delay giving you information that belongs to you.

I sniffed around and found that “Kirby’s Law” shows the limitless absurdity of football in Georgia. And I saw how deeply the need to help the Dawgs is embedded in legislators’ reptilian brains.

But as I see it, the law should be named Chip’s Law, after the DawgNation writer, Chip Towers. Back in early February, Chip put in an open records request at the end of recruiting season — you know, that very peculiar period when grown men are mesmerized by the educational intentions of very large 17-year olds. Chip sought spending receipts, including records about Smart’s use of aircraft.

It turns out the new coach had filled the air with coaches in rented aircraft. In fact, during December and January, UGA spent $558,781, more than three times what Smart’s predecessor, Mark Richt spent.

The article caused anger in UGA circles. Asked in a press conference about his reliance on planes and helicopters, Smart, a fellow of few words, simply said, Time is money.”

Five days after the story appeared on DawgNation.com, Smart was at the Capitol hobnobbing with legislators.

“When you go down there and see celebrities, (the legislators) are like children lining up for autographs,” said William Perry, a government transparency guy who observes legislators like a wildlife biologist watches animals in the wild.

Soon, lawmakers were falling over themselves asking if they could do something to help “Coach,” a reverential term accorded the state’s highest-paid employee — $3.75 million per annum.

Next thing you know, the UGA Football Secrecy Act is latched onto another bill that was written to obscure the noble intentions of developers.

Who initiated it? The chief of staff to state Sen. Bill Cowsert, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the Macon Telegraph it “came to light through Kirby Smart at UGA.”

“The pure and only intention on this is,” state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a UGA grad, said last spring, “so people don’t have access to find out who our schools are recruiting.”

It was to prevent state secrets from falling into the hands of enemies — you know, Bama, Florida, Putin.

After a spring practice, Smart was asked about the law. “I shouldn’t get any credit for that,” he said. “When I went over to the Capitol I was asked what’s the difference in our program and some programs I’ve been at in the past. One of the things I brought up (open records laws), there’s a difference.”

Smart declined follow-up questions. I just want to talk about football, he said, although he doesn’t do much of that, either. His press conferences are short, player availability is limited and he doesn’t even take live questions from callers on his radio show, just texts or emails.

Smart is following the path of his mentor, Bama coach Nick Saban. The limited access, the silence, the secrecy. I suppose if Saban ate a dill pickle before running onto the field, Kirby would down one, too.

Last spring, UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity complained that UGA’s athletics department had to work through mountains of records requests, almost 100 in the past four months. I called Atlanta police. They get 4,000 a year. And they answer in three days. McGarity did not respond to my request to talk.

Hollie Manheimer, head of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, gets irritated thinking about how legislators sneaked the bill through. She said it’s broad enough to let universities stall release of expenditures, contract terms and NCAA discipline inquires and complaints. She also worries about other public agencies wanting secrecy expansions.

“They got 90 days for no good reason,” she said. “Who else is going to seek extensions?”

It turns out no other SEC school has anywhere near a 90-day wait. Even Alabama must respond in a “reasonable” amount of time. And 90 days ain’t reasonable.

So, let’s return to the contention that other schools want to spy on UGA’s recruits. In May, Chip Towers and our colleague, DawgNation writer Seth Emerson, filed an open records request on all open records requests that came in about recruits. Were there hundreds of requests ? Thousands? Nope, only two. And they came from Athens’ newspaper, not other schools.

One more thing, about the impact. Emerson has five or six pending requests. One goes back to August, when Alabama and UGA played tug of war with a cornerback named Maurice Smith, who ultimately transferred to Athens.

Emerson is still waiting for his records requests concerning that transfer. From August!

He calls it “getting 90-dayed.”

“We don’t get it when it’s fresh,” Emerson said. “But we’re still going to write the story.”

Not writing just lets the scoundrels win.

So get ready to one day read that preseason story. Maybe before the end of the season.

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