Statesman seeks access to secret F1 court records

The Austin American-Statesman filed a plea in state District Court in Travis County on Wednesday seeking access to information that has been sealed in a lawsuit by the former head of the Formula One racetrack project against several track investors and officers.

"We want to find out what it is about this lawsuit that has to be kept secret," said Jim George, who filed the action and represents the Statesman. "I've been doing this 20 years, and I've never seen anything like this. Secrecy from the public is never in the best interest of anybody."

A hearing on the Statesman's request is set for May 29.

Statesman Managing Editor John Bridges said keeping all proceedings open is a matter of public interest.

"Court records are open for a reason," he said. "The public's right to access the records in this case is particularly important because the F1 project relies so heavily upon taxpayer money. Taxpayers deserve to know what's happening in a civil suit that could affect that public investment."

However, two district judges — Rhonda Hurley and Scott Jenkins — have already held hearings in which the temporary sealing of information was approved.

A final hearing on the merits of the issue is scheduled before District Judge Lora Livingston on June 11.

George said the newspaper did not receive a notice of the March 26 hearing before Hurley where court proceedings were sealed the first time. At the hearing before Jenkins in which he approved a temporary agreement to keep some information from public disclosure, the Statesman registered its objection. Jenkins said there was still time to file an objection.

Tavo Hellmund, once the face of the Formula One project, and his company, Full Throttle Productions, filed a lawsuit in March against Circuit of the Americas Chairman Bobby Epstein, investors and officers involved in the $300 million Formula One project under construction southeast of Austin. Hellmund said in the suit that terms for his $18 million buyout were not fulfilled and that he was scheduled to make $500,000 a year for 10 years as chairman of the F1 U.S. Grand Prix.

Circuit of the Americas attorneys want court proceedings sealed because they say they would have to divulge business practices that are confidential, said Julie Loignon, a spokeswoman for Circuit of the Americas.

Hellmund's attorneys want all court proceedings open.

"Hundreds of millions of public dollars could be spent on Austin's Formula One project, so this matter is too important to Texas taxpayers to be kept secret," said Eric Wetzel, vice president of Shipley & Associates and a spokesman for Hellmund's legal team.

Public money has already been committed to help put on Formula One racing. Travis County has agreed to pay for at least part of two key road expansions near the track.

Circuit of the Americas could also receive $250 million over 10 years from the state's Major Events Trust Fund if it can prove that it brings in that much in sales taxes.

The first race is scheduled for November.

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