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OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION, FIRST AMENDMENT • May 24, 2017
Arizona Daily Star: Border detentions in southern Arizona cost taxpayers $2 billion
Taxpayers started footing the bill for housing Ivan Moreno Miranda shortly after a Border Patrol agent caught him on Jan. 14. Moreno Miranda crossed the border illegally near Douglas after being deported in 2013, federal court records show. The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges against him and on Jan. 17 he was placed in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service while his case unfolded, at a daily detention cost of about $80. The cost of detaining Moreno Miranda kept growing until Thursday, when federal Judge Raner C. Collins sentenced him to time served. After four months in the custody of the Marshals Service, the cost of housing Moreno Miranda came to about $9,600. … In the last decade, housing people on immigration-related charges in Southern Arizona cost taxpayers more than $1.8 billion, according to statistics obtained by the Arizona Daily Star through public-records requests. The Marshals Service spent about $1.1 billion in Southern Arizona housing people on similar charges in fiscal years 2007-15, according to agency records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Chicago Tribune: Are college prep classes failing to prepare kids?
A full plate of general classes — the most common courses statewide across Illinois public high schools — is supposed to prepare students for life after graduation. But tens of thousands of students taking only general courses in main subjects — often labeled "college prep" in school curriculum guides — were not prepared for college classes, a sweeping Tribune analysis of the class of 2015 found. Those students made up most of the kids across Illinois who were not considered college ready in fundamental academic areas. A variety of factors, including the push to improve graduation rates and eliminate remedial courses, quietly weakened the rigor of some general classes, educators said, leaving students in courses that weren't tough enough.
Public education debates both here and nationwide often focus on school funding, teacher pensions, charter schools and vouchers. Little-mentioned in the discourse, though, is one of the most significant aspects of schooling: The classes kids take. The Tribune examined 4.2 million high school classes taken semester by semester by more than 150,000 students in the class of 2015, starting in fall 2011. … The data from the Illinois State Board of Education, obtained under open records laws, are the most recent available that could be linked to college entrance exam scores.
Vermont becomes latest state to protect journalists' sources
Vermont has become the latest state to enact a law that protects journalists and their sources.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a new law that creates a legal protection for information given to journalists by confidential sources or for conversations that take place off the record.
That means that the identity of anonymous sources is out of the reach of Vermont's legal system, even if those sources are government employees leaking privileged information.
Vermont Public Radio (http://bit.ly/2pXbq9A ) reports that more than two dozen states have similar protections in place.
Reporter says he was roughed up by security guards at FCC
A journalist said he was pinned against the wall by security guards and forced to leave the Federal Communications Commission headquarters after he tried to question an FCC commissioner after a news conference.
Reporter John Donnelly of CQ Roll Call said in a statement issued by the National Press Club that the guards roughed him up and removed him from the building under implied threat of force.
Donnelly said he was trying to question FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly after O'Rielly left a podium, which is a standard journalistic practice.
"We apologized to Mr. Donnelly more than once and let him know that the FCC was on heightened alert ... based on several threats," FCC spokesman Brian Hart said in a statement.
Breaking: HCC board votes not to renew journalism instructor's contract
The Board of Trustees of Hutchinson Community College voted not to renew the contract of journalism instructor Alan Montgomery after a 15-minute closed session during a special meeting.
The board went into executive session with President Carter File and the college's legal counsel, John Caton and Carol DeWald, to discuss personnel matters.
When the board resumed the open meeting, members unanimously approved a resolution declaring its intent to not renew Montgomery's contract. No discussion of the action took place in the public meeting.
Montgomery had been suspended since the beginning of May, following publication of an issue of The Hutchinson Collegian - the student newspaper at HCC - which included an article about Montgomery seeking federal intervention in the college's actions toward a pair of journalism students.
Copies of that issue were confiscated May 1 while students tried to distribute them, although the college released the papers for distribution later in the day. The college also temporarily canceled publication of the final issue of The Collegian, although File reversed that decision the next day.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION, FIRST AMENDMENT • May 17, 2017
Court upholds FOIA decision involving College of DuPage
An Illinois appellate court has ruled that the College of DuPage Foundation is subject to the state's open records law and ordered it to turn over a federal subpoena that the Chicago Tribune requested.
The unanimous decision marks the first time an Illinois higher court has ruled in favor of releasing records in possession of a public college's fundraising organization, the Tribune (http://trib.in/2q3h9NG ) reported.
The ruling upholds an earlier ruling by a DuPage Circuit Court judge.
"The Tribune is very pleased with the decision, which is a victory for transparency regarding the affairs of government," said Karen Flax, the newspaper's vice president of legal.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Parking Authority officials altered records
Just days after the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News formally requested an accounting of compensatory time at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, two top executives asked the agency to eliminate such hours they were owed, according to internal PPA emails.
Deputy executive directors Richard Dickson and Dennis Weldon sent emails to the payroll department to that effect Jan. 17 -- the same day the authority responded to the newspapers' request by falsely stating it had no comp-time records for senior staffers. Weldon, who also serves as PPA general counsel, was copied on that response.
Prior to the Right-to-Know request, the pair had accumulated hundreds of hours of comp time. Legal experts familiar with the Right-to-Know Law say those figures should have been acknowledged by the PPA.
The PPA recently released the emails as a result of a subsequent Right-to-Know request by the newspapers.
The papers had initially sought the comp-time information Jan. 13, after the agency reported that former executive director Vincent Fenerty, ousted in September after a sexual-harassment scandal, had collected $227,000 in comp time and other paid leave, as well as 15 years of free health care.
Lawyer, CEO want charge dropped against journalist
A West Virginia journalist arrested after repeatedly asking U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question said he did nothing wrong, and his attorney and the media outlet's founder want the charge dropped.
Reporter Daniel Ralph Heyman, who works for the independent Public News Service, was arrested by police at the state Capitol in Charleston during Price's recent visit.
He had wanted to ask Price about whether domestic violence is a pre-existing condition under the Republican health care proposal. Heyman got no response. So he tried again. And again.
Capitol police said in a criminal complaint that Heyman, 54, caused a disturbance with his persistent questions and "was aggressively breaching" Secret Service agents who accompanied Price.
North Dakota AG says commission violated open meetings law
North Dakota's attorney general ruled the Devils Lake City Commission was not authorized under state law to discuss in a closed meeting a report that led to separation negotiations for the city's embattled police chief and his second-in-command.
The commission closed its April 3 meeting to the public, saying it could discuss a police department assessment report in an executive session. After the meeting was reopened, the city put Police Chief Keith Schroeder and Capt. Jon Barnett on paid administrative leave.
The report that was discussed in the closed session is public under North Dakota's open records law, and the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, the Devils Lake Journal and KZZY Radio asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for an opinion on whether the city violated North Dakota's open meetings law.
South Dakota reporter subpoenaed in tribal marijuana case
Prosecutors plan to call a Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Argus Leader reporter as a witness in a trial related to a marijuana operation that the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe attempted to start, and the newspaper has objected.
The attorney general's office has subpoenaed Dana Ferguson to testify in the upcoming trial in Moody County of Eric Hagen, a consultant who helped the tribe set up a growing facility, Argus Leader Media reported (http://argusne.ws/2qgkIAl ).
Ferguson joined lawmakers and journalists on a tour of the facility in October 2015, when the tribe was planning to open a recreational marijuana resort to spur economic development. The tribe abandoned the project under fire from state officials, including Attorney General Marty Jackley, saying it had burned the plants.
Arizona Legislature OKs bill shielding student press rights
Arizona lawmakers passed legislation to on Tuesday sent legislation to shield high school and college level journalists across the state from administrative censorship for work under their school-sponsored media.
The Arizona Senate unanimously approved the amended measure after all legislators in the chamber voted for the original bill in February.
Loopholes in South Carolina's public records law could be closed
Legislation closing loopholes in South Carolina's open records law is poised to becoming law without a "crown jewel" provision that would have made it easy and inexpensive for people to force obstinate government agencies to turn over public documents.
An 89-0 vote in the House sent the bill to Gov. Henry McMaster. He says he'll sign it, capping a seven-year effort to strengthen public access to government records.
The Senate approved the bill hours earlier after stripping out the section creating a state hearing officer to settle disputes over requested information.
Idaho asks appeals court to uphold ban on spying at farms
Idaho has asked a federal appeals court to reinstate its ban on spying at farms, dairies and slaughterhouses after a lower court judge sided with animal rights activists who said the ban violated free speech rights.
Idaho lawmakers in 2014 made it a criminal offense to enter agricultural facilities by misrepresentation to gain access to records or to make undercover audio or video recordings. The state's large dairy industry had complained that videos of cows being abused at a southern Idaho dairy unfairly hurt business.
Animal rights activists, civil rights groups and media organizations sued, saying the law criminalized a long tradition of undercover journalism and would require people who expose wrongdoing to pay restitution to the businesses they target.
Seven states have similar measures — Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Utah, Missouri and North Carolina. Legal challenges are pending in Utah and North Carolina.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION, FIRST AMENDMENT • May 10, 2017
Arizona Daily Star: Most hard drugs smuggled through legal crossing points
Amid the daily traffic of workers, shoppers and truck drivers crossing the border on March 21, a customs officer in Nogales noticed a driver acting nervously. A density meter and a drug-sniffing dog led customs officers to 2 pounds of cocaine, 15 pounds of heroin and 17 pounds of methamphetamine stashed inside the speaker box in the Chevrolet Malibu’s trunk, federal court records show. Cases involving hard drugs seized at the U.S.-Mexico border regularly appear in U.S. District Court in Tucson. They also regularly appear in political rhetoric about border security and the opioid epidemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years. On April 24, President Trump tweeted: “The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)! If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!” While Trump proposes building a wall to stop drugs from crossing the border and hiring thousands more Border Patrol agents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics obtained by the Arizona Daily Star through a public-records request suggest the rhetoric coming from the White House reflects a misunderstanding of how and where hard drugs cross the border. CBP statistics show 81 percent of the 265,500 pounds of hard drugs caught at the U.S.-Mexico border from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2016 were stopped by customs officers at ports of entry, rather than by Border Patrol agents working in the desert and wilderness between ports.
Judge refuses to seal filings in wrongful imprisonment case
RALEIGH, North Carolina — A federal judge in North Carolina rejected requests to seal details in a lawsuit concerning a child murder investigation that led to two brothers being wrongfully imprisoned for three decades, and in a proposed monetary settlement with some investigators.
Five news organizations, including The Associated Press, had asked U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle for access to documents that were filed confidentially in the lawsuit by Henry McCollum and a representative of his half brother, Leon Brown.
A lawyer representing the brothers had sought to permanently seal some documents in the lawsuit and in a settlement between the brothers and the town where 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was slain in 1983.
The News & Observer of Raleigh, The Fayetteville Observer, The Charlotte Observer and WTVD-TV were the other news outlets asking to intervene in the case and oppose keeping lawsuit documents under seal.
AP: GOP chairman warns agencies about requests for records
A House Republican chairman has told a dozen government agencies to exclude communications with his committee from requests made by news organizations, advocacy groups and others through the Freedom of Information Act.
In a series of letters, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas said communications the agencies had with members of his panel and committee staff should not be released, arguing that it often includes sensitive and confidential information.
"All such documents and communications constitute congressional records not 'agency records' for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, and remain subject to congressional control even when in the physical possession of the" agency, Hensarling wrote in one April 3 letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Records and material from the executive branch are subject to requests under the 1967 Freedom of Information Act. Congress, which wrote the law, has exempted itself.
Hensarling's letter to the Treasury Department was first reported by BuzzFeed. The Associated Press obtained additional letters that the Republican lawmaker sent to other agencies within the jurisdiction of his Financial Services Committee.
Colorado governor approves public records mediation
Colorado has a new law encouraging citizens and state agencies to resolve public records disputes outside court.
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill into law. It offers mediation as an option when a citizen wants to challenge a government agency's denial of his or her request for public records.
Under Colorado's Open Records Act, such challenges must go to court — an expense that deters many from pursuing their requests.
The new law keeps that court option. But it also requires the record-keeper to contact the citizen to determine if the dispute can be resolved outside of court, including through mediation.
AP: Iowa regulator used state email for legal work
A powerful Iowa regulator used her government email to conduct private business for her personal law practice and claimed sick leave on a day when she attended a client's court hearing, which are both apparent violations of state rules.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law reveal that Iowa Utilities Board chairwoman Geri Huser used her state account this year to send messages to employees of her law firm, violating state email rules and jeopardizing confidential legal information. They also show she claimed paid sick leave Feb. 6, even though she participated in a court hearing for a legal client that afternoon.
The AP disclosed in March that Huser has operated a busy estate law practice while holding a $128,900-per year state job that has power over utilities, their customers and energy policy.
AP: Georgia losing patience with drug treatment tourists
In the northwest corner of Georgia, where cows and crops vastly outnumber people, a small cluster of privately owned treatment centers has sprung up in recent years for heroin and prescription painkiller addicts.
And most of the patients aren't even from the state.
Relaxed rules in Georgia and stricter regulations in Tennessee created a recipe for the facilities to locate a few miles from the state line. Each year, the Georgia centers draw thousands of addicts from Tennessee, some who drive for hours to get treatment. Locals are fed up with the onslaught of out-of-towners who pick up their meds and leave, and they complained so loudly that Georgia legislators recently passed a law essentially preventing any new clinics from opening up in the area.
Georgia leads the South in number of treatment centers with 71. Florida, with twice the population, has 69.
Last year, one in five people treated at an opioid treatment center in Georgia came from out of state, according to state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities records obtained by The Associated Press under an open records request. In the northwest corner of Georgia, two out of every three patients were from out of state.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION, FIRST AMENDMENT • May 4, 2017
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Man hung in cell for hours at St. Louis lockup while guards streamed Netflix
Missouri Department of Corrections employees streamed Netflix movies on state computers, used personal cellphones on duty and skipped security checks at a facility while an offender there hanged himself and lay dead in a cell for 10 hours. Surveillance footage captured it all, offering evidence that workers weren’t checking on the man even while filling out a log claiming they had. The findings are revealed in a department investigation into the Oct. 24 discovery of David Garceau at the St. Louis Community Release Center, 1621 North First Street. Paramedics pronounced him dead at 5:27 a.m. that day, but he died several hours before. The department investigation found inconsistencies in staff assignments and other mishaps in the unit leading up to Garceau’s death and the time before his body was found, according to an abridged portion of an inspector general’s report. That report was completed Jan. 31 and obtained last week by the Post-Dispatch through an open records request.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Police tech tools outrun the law
Law enforcement agents are deploying an onslaught of new technology to collect information on criminals and unsuspecting citizens alike. Body cameras. Cellphone hacking devices. License plate scanners. Software that can identify faces in surveillance video. It’s all giving authorities in Minnesota and across the country broader and deeper access than ever to data on individuals who often have no clue how information about them is gathered, stored and shared. But the rapid emergence of such tech tools also is raising alarm about the extent of surveillance — and how laws safeguarding data and guaranteeing public access to it are failing to keep up.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are increasingly reluctant to disclose what’s in their high-tech arsenal.
Spicer: White House 'looking into' libel laws
The White House is "looking into" ways to potentially change the nation's libel laws to make it easier to go after reporters whose stories they deem inaccurate, The Associated Press reports.
That's according to President Trump's chief spokesman Sean Spicer who told reporters during a briefing that: "that is something that is being looked into, substantively and then both logistically how it would happen."
Trump had pledged during his campaign to "open up" the nation's libel laws — a process that could not be accomplished by the White House. That would require a constitutional amendment or a reversal of Supreme Court precedent interpreting the First Amendment.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC on Sunday that the issue has been discussed — but cautioned that "how that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story."
Trump repeatedly threatened news outlets with lawsuits during his campaign and first lady Melania Trump last month reached a multi-million dollar settlement with the publisher of the Daily Mail newspaper for reporting rumors about her time as a model.
Poynter: New report from Index on Censorship paints a bleak picture for U.S. press freedom
The press freedom situation in the United States is worsening not only because of President Trump's anti-press rhetoric but because of a constellation of factors including arrests, detainment, lawsuits, physical violence and outright censorship, according to a new report.
The report, released by the London-based Index on Censorship this week, chronicles the recent threats to journalist safety and freedom of expression and takes a holistic view of a worsening press freedom climate.
"Smears about the media made by U.S. President Donald Trump have obscured a wider problem with press freedom in the United States: namely widespread and low-level animosity that feeds into the everyday working lives of the nation’s journalists, bloggers and media professionals," reads the introduction to the report. "This study examines documented reports from across the country in the six months leading up to the presidential inauguration and the months after. It clearly shows that threats to U.S. press freedom go well beyond the Oval Office."
Candidate Trump exhibited anti-press behavior on the campaign trail by blacklisting news organizations, denigrating reporters and encouraging his supporters to berate journalists, and his administration has also occasionally muddled reality by presenting what White House aide Kellyanne Conway dubbed “alternative facts,” according to the report.
Media: Proposed rule could block public from court records
NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Lawyers for several media organizations are raising concerns that that a proposed new court rule could bar both citizens and the press from getting court records.
Some against proposed Supreme Court Rule 34 have written letters saying they worry that the language in it gives new powers to lower courts to block the public from seeing records.
The Tennessee Bar Association raises concerns that the current language of the draft would allow lower courts to create a patchwork of exemptions to the public records act around the state.
There is criticism that the language is overly broad and records that should be public could be closed as a result of the wording.
One of the attorney's letters said the proposal doesn't say what citizens should do when they're denied records.
Google targets 'fake news,' offensive search suggestions
SAN FRANCISCO — Google has sprinkled some new ingredients into its search engine in an effort to prevent bogus information and offensive suggestions from souring its results.
The changes have been in the works for four months, but Google hadn't publicly discussed most of them until recently. The announcement in a blog post reflects Google's confidence in a new screening system designed to reduce the chances that its influential search engine will highlight untrue stories about people and events, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "fake news."
"It's not a problem that is going to go all the way to zero, but we now think we can stay a step ahead of things," said Ben Gomes, Google's vice president of engineering for search.
Besides taking steps to block fake news from appearing in its search results, Google also has reprogrammed a popular feature that automatically tries to predict what a person is looking for as a search request as being typed. The tool, called "autocomplete," has been overhauled to omit derogatory suggestions, such as "are women evil," or recommendations that promote violence.
Albuquerque police using Facebook to attack judges, media
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — The Albuquerque Police Department is using its official Facebook page to criticize area judges and local news media.
The Albuquerque Journal reports (https://goo.gl/EKFlRl) in recent months the department has used its social media page to highlight specific actions by judges and the media. In some posts, Albuquerque police criticize them and have attracted hundreds of harsh comments from the public.
Some user comments have called for violence against judges or accused reporters of crimes.
Albuquerque police spokeswoman Celina Espinoza says there is a lot of finger-pointing over the city's crime rates and the police are only trying to tell "the whole story."
Heath Haussamen, a board member of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, says said the chapter opposes the department's use of social media as its main medium for distributing information.
News outlets including AP sue state House GOP Caucus
COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A coalition of news outlets including The Associated Press has sued the state House Republican Caucus in South Carolina to gain access to information about an investigation into possible Statehouse corruption.
The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that the caucus is a public body subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act, and as such, should make its records and meetings public.
Caucus attorney Mark Moore said he hasn't reviewed the lawsuit but is comfortable with the caucus's legal positions.
The AP sought a copy of the state grand jury's subpoena of House GOP records and all documents the caucus provided for Solicitor David Pascoe's investigation. Moore has not yet responded to that FOIA request.
The caucus has denied a request from The State newspaper to view payment records to the firms of Richard Quinn and his son, Rep. Rick Quinn, who, as former majority leader, led the caucus from 1999 through 2004.
Richard Quinn declined Thursday to comment on the case or lawsuit. Rick Quinn did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
The coalition also includes The State newspaper of Columbia, The Post and Courier of Charleston, The Greenville News, the South Carolina Press Association, and South Carolina Broadcasters Association.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • April 27, 2017
Former Milwaukee officer subject of multiple investigations
A former police officer whose fatal shooting of a black man sparked riots in Milwaukee last summer was the subject of multiple internal investigations during his short career, according to his recently released personnel file. The Milwaukee Police Department released Dominique Heaggan-Brown's file to The Associated Press through an open records request. The documents show most of the allegations against him were relatively minor and were resolved with orders to review department ethics policies. But the file also suggests early concerns about his judgment, years before he was charged with reckless homicide in last year's shooting and sexual assault in a separate case.
1995 tweak to Washington state law exempts lawmakers from disclosure
When rejecting requests for everything from lawmakers' daily calendars to emails to disciplinary reports, legislative attorneys routinely cite language quietly added more than two decades ago to Washington's public records law. So while the records of elected officials ranging from school board members to county commissioners are subject to public disclosure state lawmakers point to a legislative tweak passed without fanfare in 1995 as the genesis for their self-proclaimed exemption. The 1995 language says public records held by the secretary of the Senate and the chief clerk of the House are considered "legislative records" as defined under a 1971 statute. Critics say that exemption for state lawmakers violates the spirit of Washington's open records laws.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • April 18, 2017
Secrecy of public hospital records at issue in Ga. Supreme Court case
The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments April 17 in a high-profile case that will determine whether Northside Hospital can keep its business secret — even though it operates a hospital that is owned by the public. The case is being closely watched because it could influence the public’s ability to access the records of public hospitals across Georgia that are operated by non-profit organizations. A Georgia court ruling in 1995 established that non-profits carrying out the duties of a public hospital authority are subject to the Georgia Open Records Act. For years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other members of the news media and the public used this ruling to obtain records from hospitals around the state through requests made under the act, also known as the state’s “sunshine law.”
Report: School chief spent tax money on ads, custom framing
The superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School system reportedly used taxpayer funds to pay for a never-used advertising campaign, custom framing of her college diplomas and a photo shoot, among other things. Nivea Torres is on paid leave from her $169,000-a-year job while the state investigates more than $4.5 million in payments the system has made since 2014 to a marketing firm called The Pita Group. The Hartford Courant reported Friday (http://cour.at/2pfRjWU ) that documents obtained in an open records request show Torres paid Pita about $42,000 to produce the unused advertising campaign; more than $3,400 for a photo shoot of students at the Ellis Technical School in Danielson and nearly $760 to frame four items, including her college diplomas. Gregg Adler, Torres' attorney, has said she did nothing wrong.
Company: Nebraska shouldn't have gotten death penalty drug
A German pharmaceutical manufacturer whose drugs ended up in Nebraska's lethal injection supply never intended for state officials to obtain them and tried unsuccessfully to get the corrections department to return them, a company spokesman said Thursday, April 13. Nebraska's corrections department was only able to buy potassium chloride in 2015 because one of its U.S. distributors made a mistake, said Fresenius Kabi spokesman Matt Kuhn. His comments came after The Associated Press asked whether company officials were aware that the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services had bought their product for use as a lethal injection drug. The AP identified the manufacturer through an open records request, but a bill slated for debate in the Legislature would allow the state to hide the identities of its suppliers.
Wage theft in Colorado no longer a secret
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed into law a bill that allows the public to know if an employer steals wages from his or her workers. Democratic Rep. Jessie Danielson's measure includes these wage violations under Colorado's Open Records Act. The law, signed Thursday, April 12, allows citizens to find out if they're doing business with, or considering a job with, an offender. Such cases, decided by state labor officials, were considered trade secrets under a century-old law. State officials say there were 274 wage claim violations last year. Danielson says the law "will empower honest, hard-working Coloradans and level the playing field for businesses that do right by their employees." Republican John Cooke sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Florida House: University boosters need to open books
Florida's college athletic booster groups and university foundations would be forced to open their records to the public under a bill passed by the Florida House. The Florida House voted 115-0 Thursday, April 12 to change a state law that allows university groups to keep most of their records private. If it becomes law athletic boosters and university foundations could only keep information on the names of donors secret. The bill heads to the Florida Senate. The legislation also prevents colleges and universities from using taxpayer money to pay for people who work for direct support organizations, which usually raise money to help pay for athletics and other university operations. The House has been scrutinizing university spending and requested private records that showed how much university foundations spend on travel and salaries.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • April 13, 2017
Bill to keep many 911 calls secret has been blocked in Iowa
An Iowa bill that would have eliminated public access to many 911 calls is dead this session. Caleb Hunter, a spokesman for the Iowa Senate's Republican majority, confirmed Monday, April 10, the legislation has been taken off the debate calendar. The bill would've declared that 911 calls involving injured victims are medical records and exempt from Iowa's open records law. All calls regarding minors also would have been confidential. The legislation was introduced in response to the release of 911 calls to The Associated Press that exposed a string of gun accidents in Iowa. While the bill was approved unanimously in the Iowa House, opposition mounted after the AP reported on it. Hunter says some Republicans had concerns about the bill's impact on body cameras, since the measure included language regarding video.
Senate approves Colorado public records mediation
A bill encouraging citizens and state agencies to resolve public records disputes outside court is headed to the governor's desk. The Senate passed the bill Monday 35-0. It offers mediation as an option when a citizen wants to challenge a government agency's denial of his or her request for public records. Under Colorado's Open Records Act, such challenges must go to court — an expense that deters many from pursuing their requests. The new bill keeps that court option. But it also requires the record-keeper to contact the citizen to determine if the dispute can be resolved outside of court, including through mediation. The bill's sponsors include Republican Rep. Cole Wist, Democratic Rep. Alec Garnett and Republican Sen. John Cooke.
Georgia professor wrestles his university over open records
A professor at Valdosta State University at Valdosta, Georgia, is wrestling with administrators at the south Georgia campus over his requests to review public documents that reference him by name. The Valdosta Daily Times reports (http://bit.ly/2o2Q2zD ) assistant nursing professor Myron Faircloth asked the university in February for three years of documents that are considered public records under Georgia law. He says he was attempting to discover whether fellow faculty members had made negative comments about him. University officials told Faircloth fulfilling the request would cost him $7,000. He narrowed it to cover a six-month period and was told he would still be charged $1,000. The university said in a statement it needed to charge for review and redaction of legally protected personnel or student information. Faircloth sent another revised request this month.
Text messages show tension between Walker, Vos
Text messages between Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos released Friday reveal private tensions over the state budget, adding another layer to increasingly terse inter-party bickering over the spending plan.
Copies of the messages were released Friday by the governor's office to The Associated Press and other news outlets under the open records law. They come a day after Vos and other GOP legislative leaders publicly rejected Walker's plan for roads funding and tossed 83 policy items from his two-year spending plan, a rare move that hasn't happened in at least 24 years. Republicans control state government with their largest majorities in the Legislature in decades and Walker is preparing for a likely run at a third term next year. But they are battling over Walker's budget proposal.
Appeals court sides with Kansas in open records lawsuit
A Kansas appeals court panel has ruled that the state does not have to make public applications for two county commission openings filled by Gov. Sam Brownback.
The Court of Appeals sided Friday, April 7, with the state in the lawsuit brought by The Salina Journal and The Associated Press seeking the disclosure of information on more than two dozen applicants for newly created Saline County Commission seats. A three-judge panel agreed with the governor's office that those are personnel records exempt from the state's open records law. The AP and the newspaper argued that the applicant's names and other details are public information. Shawnee County District Judge's Rebecca Crotty ruled in December 2015 in favor of AP and the newspaper, prompting the state to appeal. The appellate decision overturns Crotty's ruling.
Lawmakers table bill extending FOIA to nonresidents
Legislation allowing nonresidents of Delaware to request public records under the state's Freedom of Information Act ran into a roadblock Wednesday, April 5, in the General Assembly. Currently, public bodies do not have to respond to FOIA requests from anyone who is not a resident of Delaware. The proposed legislation, which was tabled in committee Wednesday, would remove that restriction while allowing state agencies and public bodies to charge higher fees to nonresidents, as long as they reasonably reflect the costs needed to defray expenses. As initially written, the legislation also added language to the current law allowing anyone attending an open meeting of a public body to make audio and video recordings, as long as doing so is not disruptive.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • April 5, 2017
Opposition grows to Iowa bill making many 911 calls secret
Civil rights groups, media advocates and some lawmakers are opposing an Iowa bill that would end public access to many 911 calls, a broadly-worded measure that also could shield some police videos. The bill declares that 911 calls involving injured people are confidential "medical records" and exempt from Iowa's open records law. The secrecy would apply to audio and video "not limited to" the call recordings themselves, a clause that critics fear could apply to videos documenting the aftermath of officer-involved shootings. Calls made by minors under the age of 18 or about minors would also become secret.The bill passed the Iowa House unanimously with little debate, with backers saying it would protect medical privacy and the privacy of children. But a chorus of opposition has emerged as the Senate considers whether to schedule it for a vote, the final approval needed before going to Gov. Terry Branstad.
ACLU opposes bill keeping many 911 calls secret in Iowa
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is opposing a bill moving quickly through the Legislature that would block public access to 911 calls involving injuries. The nonprofit registered against the bill Friday, one day after The Associated Press reported about the legislation. The bill would declare that audio, video and transcripts of 911 calls involving injured victims of crimes or accidents are confidential medical records and exempt from the Iowa open records law. Calls involving minors would automatically be confidential. Republican Rep. Dean Fisher says the bill was crafted after the AP sought 911 calls that shed light on gun violence in an Iowa county. Fisher says medical privacy outweighs the public's right-to-know.
ACLU legal director Rita Bettis says 911 calls provide accountability on law enforcement and private organizations.
In open-records suit, governor’s lawyer questions media expectations
An attorney for New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez suggested March 29 in a state courtroom in Santa Fe that Martinez has no obligation to speak with reporters. The governor, her public information staff and campaign spokesmen have boasted repeatedly for years that Martinez operates the “most transparent administration” in the history of the state. But on the opening day of a First District Court trial over a civil lawsuit alleging the administration violated public records law, attorney Paul Kennedy aggressively questioned journalists on the witness stand about why they believed the governor was obligated to talk to them. More than once as he was questioning former reporters and a former editor of Santa Fe Reporter, which filed a lawsuit in 2013, Kennedy referred to the “journalism racket.” The Reporter’s suit accuses Martinez of violating the state’s open-records law by not providing documents requested by the weekly newspaper’s staff and by regularly failing to reply to requests for comments for stories.
NJ Judge removes order blocking newspaper from reporting on boy
A New Jersey judge has overturned an order preventing a newspaper from reporting on a child services complaint involving a kindergarten student who brought drugs to school twice. Judge Lawrence De Bello ruled March March 27 that he found no evidence to support the state's argument that a reporter for the Trentonian newspaper illegally obtained the complaint from the boy's mother. Government lawyers sought the injunction against the newspaper, saying child welfare complaints must be kept confidential under state law. The state had alleged that Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea stole the complaint from the mother, but he said she knew he was reporting on the story and gave it to him. She had met with him at his office earlier in the day.
Colorado wage theft bill headed to governor's desk
Thanks to a bill that's headed to the governor's desk, Coloradans soon can find out if an employer cheated his or her workers on wages. For decades, any finding by Colorado labor officials that an employer engaged in wage theft has been considered a trade secret that's off-limits to the public. But the Senate on March 28 approved the bill that would include those findings under Colorado's Open Records Act. The House previously passed the legislation. It would allow citizens to know if they are patronizing or considering employment with an offender. It also would level the playing field for the vast majority of employers who abide by wage, overtime and other pay laws or contracts. The bill is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jessie Danielson and Republican Sen. John Cooke.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • March 31, 2017
News service sues Vermont over access to new lawsuits
A California-based news service has filed a lawsuit against the Vermont court system, alleging it improperly conceals newly filed lawsuits in violation of the public's right to access court records under the First Amendment. The Burlington Free Press reports ( ) the suit filed by Courthouse News Service in federal court says Vermont is the only state in the U.S. that keeps most lawsuits secret until after the papers have been served on defendants. The suit claims that process can lead to months of delays in disclosing new cases. The lawsuit is asking a federal judge to declare the state's confidentiality rules unconstitutional and order state court personnel to provide immediate access to newly filed lawsuits.
Megan Shafritz, of the Vermont Attorney General's office, says the state intends to defend the current practice.
Kentucky attorney general seeks to intervene in records lawsuit
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear is asking to intervene in another open records dispute between a university and student publications. Beshear said in a statement on Thursday that he filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Western Kentucky University against its student newspaper, the College Heights Herald, and the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper at the University of Kentucky. At issue is the university's refusal to turn over records related to investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct. In January, Beshear found Western violated open records law by denying the records to the publications. Western then challenged Beshear's decision by suing the student newspapers since a university cannot sue the attorney general. Beshear is also seeking to intervene in a similar lawsuit filed by Kentucky State University.
Lawsuit challenges Arkansas execution secrecy
A lawsuit contends Arkansas is violating the state's open records law and its own execution policy by refusing to release documents proving they obtained lethal drugs from legitimate sources ahead of four double-executions set for next month.
Steven Shults says he can no longer receive product labels from the Arkansas Department of Correction. The agency used to release the material, but said it will no longer do so after The Associated Press used the label's distinct typography to unmask the manufacturers in 2015. Heather Zachary, a lawyer for Shults, that with Arkansas' history of once acquiring drugs from a company located in the back of a London driving school, it's important for the state to reveal its sources. The prison department says the drugs were manufactured and are FDA-approved.
Ohio court rejects media request for autopsies of 8 slain
An appeals court in Chillicothe, Ohio, court has rejected a newspaper's request for access to coroner's office evidence regarding eight Ohio massacre victims. The Cincinnati Enquirer asked the Pike County Coroner for preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and other material for the victims of last year's still unsolved killings. At issue before the 4th District Court of Appeals was a reporter's right to invoke an exception to state law that shields such preliminary information. The court in Chillicothe ruled against the newspaper last week, saying the information is protected as "confidential law enforcement investigatory records." Jack Greiner, an attorney representing the newspaper, called the ruling disappointing. The Ohio Supreme Court is considering a separate request from the Enquirer and the Columbus Dispatch for the complete autopsy reports.
Colorado public records mediation bill going to Senate
Colorado's House has unanimously approved a bill offering mediation to those disputing a denial of a public record request under the Colorado Open Records Act.
The House voted 65-0 on Wednesday, March 22, to send the bill to the Senate. The bill by Republican Rep. Cole Wist and Democratic Rep. Alec Garnett provides an alternative to costly court challenges of records denials. It would encourage both parties to agree on a solution before going to court. At least 26 states have mediation procedures to resolve public records disputes.
Senate sends amended electronic records bill to House
Colorado's Senate has approved a bill directing government agencies to deliver requested public records in electronic formats that can be read by computer. The Republican-led Senate voted 21-14 on Wednesday, March 22, to send Democratic Sen. John Kefalas' bill to the House. Kefalas' legislation seeks to make it easier for citizens to analyze information in public documents they obtain under the Colorado Open Records Act. It requires agencies to provide information in most cases in computer-readable formats. The Senate amended the bill to have CORA apply to the judiciary, which courts have ruled is not covered by the act. Majority House Democrats oppose the amendment, saying the judiciary has its own public records rules. But House co-sponsor Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat, says House lawmakers will carefully consider the amendment.
Health company appealing orders on records, legal costs
A company that formerly provided medical services to New Mexico prison inmates is appealing court orders for disclosure of certain records and for payment of legal fees of two newspapers and an advocacy group seeking the records. The Santa Fe New Mexican (https://goo.gl/yLFtAy ) reports that state District Judge Raymond Ortiz ruled this month that Corizon Health must pay $37,535 to attorneys for the New Mexican, the Albuquerque Journal and the Foundation for Open Government.
Ortiz ruled that payment is required because the newspapers and the foundation successfully sued to enforce the state Open Records Act. Ortiz had ruled last August that the records of settlement agreements between Corizon and prisoners who sued the company were subject to disclosure. The state last year announced it wasn't renewing Corizon's four-year contract.
Open records plan not meant to violate law, mayor says
Oscar Leeser, the mayor of El Paso, Texas, has asked city attorneys to study how the city can more efficiently address open records requests, saying his original proposal was not meant to violate state open records laws. "If we could be more transparent and easier for everybody that would be ideal," Leeser said during Tuesday's City Council meeting. "This is to be more transparent and to get them up quicker. We are not looking to violate anything." Leeser initially proposed releasing records requested by any one media organizations to all news outlets at the same time. He argued that was meant to prevent duplicate requests and ensure each news organization receives the same documents. Open records experts with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas told the El Paso Times that the proposal would violate the “uniform treatment” provision of the Texas Public Information Act by discriminating against requests made by the news media.
Kentucky AG seeks to intervene in open records case
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear wants to join in an open records dispute between Kentucky State University and a student newspaper. Beshear's office said Tuesday, March 21, he filed a motion in Franklin Circuit Court seeking to intervene.
At issue is KSU's refusal to turn over records related to an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. The University of Kentucky's student newspaper is seeking the records. In January, Beshear found KSU violated open records law by denying the records to a Kentucky Kernel reporter. KSU challenged Beshear's decision by suing the student newspaper since a university cannot sue the attorney general. Beshear's office says KSU refused to provide the records to the AG's office for confidential review. Beshear says KSU's lawsuit is an attack on transparency laws. KSU did not immediately comment.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • March 23, 2017
Media lawyers ask judge to lift gag order in teacher slaying
Attorneys for several media organizations asked a judge March 16 to lift a gag order in the case of a slain Georgia high school teacher who vanished nearly 12 years ago. Superior Court Judge Melanie B. Cross said she expects to rule in about a week. Her order prohibits attorneys, investigators, potential witnesses and even family members of the victim and suspects from publicly discussing the slaying of Tara Grinstead. Grinstead went missing from her home in rural Irwin County in October 2005. Her disappearance went unexplained for more than a decade until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last month announced it had arrested 33-year-old Ryan Alexander Duke on charges that he killed the former teacher at Irwin County High School.
Secret police possible at Arkansas Capitol, perhaps colleges
The agency that protects Arkansas' state Capitol and grounds now has the authority to operate in secret after the governor let a Freedom of Information exemption become law without his signature. The measure, Senate Bill 131, was intended to close loopholes that some believed would let anyone access security assignments and becomes law without the signature of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "He did not sign SB131. Too broad," Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said without elaboration. As the bill is written, it would prevent disclosure of any information about the force: its size, its racial or gender makeup or any officer's salary. A similar bill extending privacy to police forces at state-funded colleges and universities received final passage in the Senate March 14.
Colorado public records bill heads to Senate for debate
A state Senate committee approved a bill March 14 to modernize Colorado's Open Records Act and left intact a Republican amendment to have it apply to the judiciary, which courts have determined is not covered by the act. That decision by the Appropriations Committee could jeopardize the bill's chances of passing. Both the judicial branch and majority House Democrats oppose expanding the act to cover the judicial branch, which has its own rules for public disclosure. They say the amendment complicates a bill designed to expedite records requests, not to change the rules for which types of records can be disclosed. Democratic Sen. John Kefalas' bill would allow citizens to obtain and analyze public documents by requiring state agencies to provide them, with some exceptions, in their original, computer-friendly electronic formats, rather than forcing requesters to pore over paper or PDF documents.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • March 15, 2017
Obama's final year: US spent $36 million in records lawsuits
The Obama administration in its final year in office spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records under the Freedom of Information Act, according to an Associated Press analysis of new U.S. data that also showed poor performance in other categories measuring transparency in government. For a second consecutive year, the Obama administration set a record for times federal employees told citizens, journalists and others that despite searching they couldn't find a single page of files that were requested. And it set records for outright denial of access to files, refusing to quickly consider requests described as especially newsworthy, and forcing people to pay for records who had asked the government to waive search and copy fees.
Arkansas open records advocates fear major change in FOI law
In the 50 years since Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller's signature enacted one of the nation's strongest laws ensuring government openness, legislators have carved out fewer than two dozen exemptions to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. This year alone, state legislators have filed bills to create another dozen exemptions and make it harder to find other records. In what's being called an unprecedented assault on the public's access to government records, legislators have already authorized a secret police force at the state Capitol and could soon extend the same privacy to those who patrol Arkansas' state-run colleges and universities. While President Donald Trump has labeled journalists the "enemy of the people," a Democratic lawmaker said the effort to weaken Arkansas' FOI began much earlier. State government workers complained at the Capitol last year that it had become burdensome to comply with information requests.
Early reviews positive for new records law in Massachusetts
In the nearly three months since an overhauled Massachusetts Public Records Law took effect, the state's supervisor of public records has responded to over 80 percent more appeals than in the same time period last year, according to the agency's online database. The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires agencies and towns to respond to requests for records within 10 days and limits how much an agency can charge for preparing these records. This is the first time the state's records law has been updated since 1973. Attorney Jeffrey J. Pyle, of the Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye, said the increase in appeals to public record request responses from last year to this year indicates that the public is testing the new measures. "It tends to suggest that people are making more use of the law and are eager to test out the new enforcement," Pyle said.
Wisconsin superintendent candidate chastised over bleacher donation
State superintendent candidate Lowell Holtz was chastised by the school board where he most recently worked for donating football field bleachers to a nearby private school his children attended without notifying the board, personnel records show. The records also show he was at odds with the Whitnall School District board over his communication about a district employee who used a computer to facilitate a sex crime. Holtz retired in June as superintendent of Whitnall, in Greenfield, after clashing with the school board. Holtz faces two-term state superintendent Tony Evers in the April 4 election. Though it is officially nonpartisan, conservatives are lined up behind Holtz while liberals are backing Evers.Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now received Holtz's personnel file through an open records request and provided them to The Associated Press.
Michigan panel votes to open governor, lawmakers to records requests
Legislation advancing in the Michigan House would subject the governor and lawmakers to public-records requests. The bipartisan bills were approved March 9 by a Republican-led House committee. The votes set the stage for passage in the House next week during Sunshine Week — a celebration of access to public information. Advocates have said Michigan is one of just two states to wholly exempt the governor from open-records laws. It's among eight states where the legislature is explicitly exempt. The legislation would exempt communications between legislators and their constituents from being disclosed, except if the constituent is a lobbyist. Once the bills clear the House, they will face opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof opposes efforts to subject the governor's office and the Legislature to open-records requests.
Lawyer: Pence's AOL account adds new wrinkle to civil case
A lawyer suing Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to release public records as Indiana's governor says his case should get a fresh look after revelations that the Republican used a private AOL email account to conduct state business. Democratic attorney William Groth is asking Indiana's Supreme Court to send his lawsuit back to a lower court to examine the private emails. He cited recent news stories revealing details of Pence's use of the account. Groth said Tuesday he may seek additional records that should have been released after he filed a public records request. He previously sought documents sent to Republican governors in 2014, outlining a legal strategy for challenging then-President Barack Obama's immigration order. A spokesman for Pence says he "retained records in full compliance with Indiana law."
Newspaper editor provides open records training to Georgia officials
Members of the Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County, Georgia, along with county government officials and staff, completed an open records and open meetings training session March 7. The workshop was presented by Jim Zachary, The Valdosta Daily Times editor and regional editor for its parent company Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. Zachary has conducted open government symposiums across the state of Georgia, is the director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, a member of the board of directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and holds the David E. Hudson Open Government Award, along with having received multiple awards from the Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association for open government work.
North Carolina court rules for school board over Times-News
The North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a Superior Court decision March 7 rejecting the lawsuit by the Times-News, of Burlington, seeking records of school board discussions leading up to the departure of former Superintendent Lilli Cox.
“The court’s job is to read the public records law broadly to promote access,” said John Bussian III, the Times-News’ attorney,“ and this decision, if correct, shows why North Carolina’s public records access law keeps the public from knowing reasons for important government personnel decisions, unlike the law in more than 35 other states.” The unanimous Appeals Court opinion, written by Judge Chris Dillon, agreed with the argument of the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education that its redaction of large sections of the minutes of closed session meetings leading up to the board’s vote May 30, 2014, to accept Cox’s resignation were consistent with state open records and open meetings laws, and the exceptions for attorney-client privilege and personnel privacy.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • March 9, 2017
Pence fought against releasing records as Indiana governor
Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly stonewalled media requests to view public records when he was Indiana's governor, including emails about state business distributed from a private AOL account that was hacked last year. Revelations Pence used the account to discuss homeland security and other official matters, first reported Thursday, March 2, by the Indianapolis Star, are just the latest in a series of transparency battles involving the Republican's tenure as governor. The Star obtained the AOL emails through an open records request after new Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb agreed to release 29 pages from his predecessor's AOL account. The Associated Press filed a similar records request last July seeking the emails and followed up with a complaint against the governor's office in January when there was no response. Earlier this year, lawyers for Pence argued unsuccessfully in a civil case that Indiana courts had no authority to force him to comply with public records law.
Florida reporters to see how lawmakers stand on open records
Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Florida Legislature debated a bill that would exempt from public access all information about crop-dusting operations. But most operators are actively broadcasting that information in search of clients. And their registration numbers are painted right on their planes' tails. "How do you exempt something that is clearly visible?" Barbara Petersen asks. The bill never became law. Because of Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law, the state's records and meetings are more accessible than in most states. But the Legislature has, year in and year out, instituted, or considered instituting, numerous exemptions. The body, on average, imposes up to a dozen a year; the grand total, as of early February, was 1,119. Keeping an eye on those efforts is Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee nonprofit open-government advocacy group. It's supported by newspapers and broadcasters as well as numerous lawyers and just plain citizens.
Advocates in Tennessee keep close eye on open records bills
At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Tennessee Press Association, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell said they would be open to reviewing the hundreds of exemptions to the state’s public records law. During the interaction, the leaders were pressed on the possibility of including a sunset provision on any new exemptions that are added to the public records law. “I think that’s an idea that we need to probably pursue,” McNally said. While the discussion on open records was relatively brief, it provided insight and hope for open records advocates who worry about the continuing effort to limit access to public records in Tennessee.
California Supreme Court: Officials' emails on private accounts are public
Government employees in California cannot keep the public from seeing their work-related emails and texts sent on personal devices and through private accounts, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously March 2, closing a loophole that justices said could have allowed the "most sensitive and potentially damning" communications to be shielded. With the ruling, California joins a growing list of states that treat public business done through private accounts as public records. "This ruling is a model for giving government transparency laws meaning in the digital age," said Matthew Cagle, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which filed a brief in the case. The ruling came in a lawsuit against the city of San Jose. City Attorney Richard Doyle said he was not surprised by the decision and did not plan to challenge it. But he said it raised practical challenges for cities and counties.
An amended Colorado records bill survives another hearing
A bill to modernize Colorado's Open Records Act has survived its first Senate hearing — but with an amendment that could mean trouble down the road. The GOP-led Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted 4-1 March 1 to send the bill by Democratic Sen. John Kefalas to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill would, in most cases, allow citizens to more easily analyze public documents by requiring state agencies to provide them in computer-friendly electronic formats. But committee chair Sen. Ray Scott introduced an amendment to have the judicial branch covered by the bill. State courts have ruled the judiciary is not subject to the records act. Scott's amendment passed on a 3-2 party-line vote. Scott said he introduced the amendment because he feels it's time to overhaul what is and is not covered by the act. Backers of Kefalas' bill say they only intended to expedite records access under the act.
EPA chief Pruitt's ex-office given more time on emails
The chief justice of Oklahoma's Supreme Court on Tuesday, Feb. 28, gave the state's new attorney general more time to produce thousands of documents related to the relationship that new Environmental Protection Agency leader Scott Pruitt had with energy companies. Chief Justice Douglas Combs granted Attorney General Mike Hunter's request for an emergency stay after attorneys for Hunter's office argued a lower court's Friday deadline was not enough time to produce all the documents. "Not only was this a patently unreasonable directive, but the AG's office was not given the opportunity to respond to the petition," Hunter spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said in a statement. "Our office is appreciative and encouraged by the court's decision and welcomes the opportunity to present its case so that these records can be reviewed and provided in an orderly fashion."
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • March 2, 2017
Under court order, Iowa county hospital discloses settlement
A county-owned hospital in western Iowa has released to the public how much it paid the husband of a woman whose death was blamed on a botched colonoscopy.
Settlement documents released by Crawford County Memorial Hospital show it and its insurer paid $500,000 to Eugene Christiansen, whose wife, Carole, died in November 2014 after her colon was accidentally torn. The hospital had refused to release the settlement documents, saying the money was deposited into an estate account that was sealed by a judge. State law bars government agencies from entering into secret settlements of lawsuits. The Carroll Daily Times Herald and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council took the matter to court. On Friday a judge ordered the hospital to disclose the settlement publicly.
Missouri judge says state knowingly violated Sunshine law
A Missouri judge ruled the state Corrections Department intentionally delayed fulfilling a Sunshine request over the source of execution drugs to avoid returning them and facing negative publicity. "The Missouri Department of Corrections violated the public's trust, in both its plan to use questionably obtained drugs and by purposefully violating the Sunshine Law to cover up its scheme," American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman said in a Monday, Feb. 27, statement touting the ruling. Attorney General Josh Hawley's Deputy Chief of Staff Loree Anne Paradise said the case still is considered pending and declined to comment. At issue is a 2013 open records request from the ACLU over where the state got the anesthetic drug propofol to use in executions.
Wisconsin superintendent candidate unsure email broke law
IA candidate for Wisconsin's top education job said Monday, Feb. 27, he's unsure he did anything wrong when he sent campaign-related an email last year using his public school district account. Wisconsin law forbids the use of government resources for political campaigns, but state superintendent candidate Lowell Holtz said it never occurred to him that he was violating any rules when he sent an email soliciting campaign advice and touting his support among Republicans. "It never crossed my mind that I was going to be violating anything, and I'm still not sure if I violated anything," Holtz said of the email, which was provided to The Associated Press Friday by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now. The group obtained it through an open records request.
Tennessee county employees got $600,000 in retirement bonuses
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that in her last months in office, Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell gave 15 employees $600,000 in retirement bonuses. Heiskell first offered the early retirement packages in June, five months before she lost her re-election bid. As part of the offer, obtained last week through an open records request, Heiskell told her workers they would get extra money if they closed out their pension plans. The size of the bonus depended on how long the employee worked for the county and his or her average salary. But in total, county records show, the local government paid 15 employees $3 million — about $600,000 more than they would have received had they retired without the bonus.
Montana legislators vote against restricting media photos
Proposed legislation in Montana to restrict the news media's publication of fatal accident photographs on social media until the victims' next of kin is notified stalled Monday, Feb. 27, amid concerns that it would violate press freedom rights. The Montana House Judiciary Committee voted 12-7 against the bill by Amanda Curtis of Butte, a state lawmaker who is seeking the Democratic nomination in a special election expected to be held later this year for the state's only U.S. House seat. The measure would have forced news organizations to delay posting photos that would have made it possible to identify the victim of a fatal accident on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, including pictures of the victims' vehicles.
Ohio court will hear debate on autopsies of 8 family members
The Ohio Supreme Court said Wednesday, Feb. 23, it will hear an open records dispute involving autopsy reports in the unsolved slayings of eight family members. At issue are lawsuits filed by Ohio newspapers seeking the full, unredacted copies of the reports on victims of the April 22 massacre in southern Ohio. The court gave both sides three weeks to submit evidence, and set a deadline for submitting follow-up responses to that evidence. The Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer have sued for the complete autopsy reports. The case involves seven adults and a teenage boy from the Rhoden family found shot to death at four homes near Piketon on April 22.
Georgia “citizen journalist” wages single-handed fight for open government
When Nydia Tisdale turned her camera on a north Georgia city council meeting, the mayor ordered her to stop recording and had a police officer forcibly remove her and the camera. Two years later, as she filmed a Republican midterm election campaign rally, a sheriff's captain led her away shouting, her arm pinned behind her back, as candidates and spectators looked on. Armed with a video camera and a thorough knowledge of her legal rights, the 53-year-old self-described citizen journalist has made it her mission to promote transparency in local government. Tisdale goes to city council meetings, county commission meetings and events where politicians are speaking. She uploads the videos, or "nydeos," to her website. She doesn't interview people or provide commentary, preferring to simply document.
Kansas House votes to limit access to police records
A bill limiting public access to records about police officers who have been disciplined or fired will move to the Kansas Senate after the House passed it by a wide margin Wednesday, Feb. 21. The bill passed 107 to 18. It would exempt police records held at a central registry from the Kansas Open Records Act. That would limit access to the list of registered police officers, records about those who have been fired and complaints against officers. Those records would be treated like personnel and investigatory records. Supporters say the records could still be released by the local law enforcement agencies that produce them. Opponents say those agencies won't release the records if they don't have to, limiting transparency. Under the bill, people could petition a court to open the records.
EPA head's emails with energy companies to be released
The Oklahoma attorney general's office said Tuesday, Feb. 21, it is complying with a judge's order to surrender documents related to new Environmental Protection Agency leader Scott Pruitt's communications with energy companies while he served as the state's attorney general. The office had until 5 p.m. Tuesday to comply with District Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons's order to turn over emails and other documents to the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, which requested the documents more than two years ago under Oklahoma's Open Records Act. A spokesman for the office, Lincoln Ferguson, said it turned over records related to the January 2015 request to the watchdog agency and that other records were turned over to the judge to determine if they are privileged and not subject to release under the law.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Feb. 22, 2017
Newspaper seeks release of video showing man's death in jail
Allowing the widow of a man who died in jail to sue to stop any release of video of her husband's death would end up rewriting South Carolina's open records laws, a lawyer for new media organizations said. LaKrystal Coats sued to stop the release of footage of her husband's death in March, saying the video is an invasion of privacy. The Greenwood County Sheriff's Office has refused to release the footage, citing Coats' lawsuit. The Index-Journal of Greenwood requested the video under the Freedom of Information Act and was sent footage from before Demetric Cowan became sick, but no video that showed how jail workers responded when he started to crawl around and shake on the floor.
Judge: EPA nominee Pruitt must provide records of meetings
An Oklahoma judge has ordered state Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, to turn over documents related to Pruitt's communications with coal, oil and natural gas corporations that an advocacy group has sought for more than two years. District Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons said Feb. 16 "there really is no reasonable explanation" why Pruitt's office has not complied with a request filed in January 2015 by the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy for communications between Pruitt and Koch Industries and other major energy companies as well as the corporate-funded Republican Attorney General's Association.
House panel OKs making wage-theft findings open to public
For about a century, any finding by Colorado labor officials that an employer cheated his or her workers on wages has been considered a trade secret that's off-limits to the public. That may change this year after a House panel unanimously approved a bill Thursday, Feb. 16, to include those findings under Colorado's Open Records Act. Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jesse Danielson, the bill would allow citizens to know if they are patronizing or considering employment with an offender — and level the playing field for the vast majority of employers who abide by wage, overtime and other pay laws or contracts. It would make that information subject to records requests after an employer has exhausted all appeals.
Police chief quietly retires after leave, harassment claim
The police chief of a small town in western Colorado has retired without a public announcement after being put on leave for several months. The Post Independent reports (http://bit.ly/2lmwgQF ) that Levy Burris had been Silt's police chief for 10 years before his quiet retirement in January. He was placed on paid leave in September after the town's mayor formally accused him of harassment. Burris said Wednesday, Feb. 15, that his leave was unrelated to Mayor Rick Aluise's claim. He said he can't disclose why he was placed on leave but that "multiple issues" had come up. The Post Independent obtained a copy of the claim by Aluise and his 19-year-old step-daughter through the Colorado Open Records Act. The claim is required as a precursor to a potential suit against a government body.
Indiana Senate overrides Pence vetoes
The Republican-controlled Indiana Senate enacted into law Tuesday, Feb. 14, two measures vetoed last year by Republican former Gov. Mike Pence. House Enrolled Act 1022, which subjects most, but not all, records of private university police departments to disclosure under Indiana's open records law, won approval by a 47-3 margin. House Enrolled Act 1082, sponsored by state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, requires any state environmental regulations approved by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb that are more stringent than federal rules not take effect until after the next session of the General Assembly adjourns for the year.. That veto override was approved 49-1. Both Pence vetoes were overwhelmingly overridden last week by the Republican-controlled House.
Court: Missouri not required to identify execution drug's source
A Missouri appellate court has ruled that the state's prison officials aren't obligated to publicly reveal the source of the drug used to execute death row inmates. The Kansas City Star (http://bit.ly/2l6Ztwl ) reports that the appellate court's Western District decided Tuesday to overturn a 2016 trial court ruling that the state wrongly withheld documents that would identify pharmaceutical suppliers. The appeals court agreed with the state that a law that protects the identity of the state's execution team applies to those who supply the execution drug pentobarbital. Citing the open records exemption, Missouri has declined for several years to say where it obtains its drugs. The lawsuit was filed in 2014 by media organizations including The Associated Press, The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
San Antonio officers who had sex on duty are appealing firing
Two San Antonio police officers who were effectively fired last year for sexual misconduct while on duty are appealing the decisions and likely will appear before an arbitrator this year. Officers Rebecca Martinez and Eman Fondren both were served indefinite suspensions in April for repeatedly disabling their GPS units and having sex with each other while on duty, according to suspension paperwork obtained by the San Antonio Express-News through an open records request. They appealed the decisions by Chief William McManus. An exact date for the arbitration has not been set, SAPD spokesman Sgt. Jesse Salame said. According to the suspension documents, Martinez and Fondren disabled the GPS units on their vehicles two times in October 2015 and met with each other while on duty, once in the rear parking lot of a Home Depot store and another time at a private residence.
Alleged Florida airport shooter lied about his record on job form
The man accused of killing five people at a Florida airport lied about his criminal record on his application to be a security guard in Alaska, and was fired after only a few months on the job because of the state of his mental health. The new information is contained in the security guard application Esteban Santiago filed last summer for a license from the state of Alaska so he could work at Signal 88 Security in Anchorage. The state released the application Monday, Feb. 11, to The Associated Press, which had appealed the state's initial refusal to release the document made through an open records request.
New Mexico bill would end ‘political purpose’ barrier to public data
Norm Gaume, the former director of New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission, says data reveals errors undermining the state’s case for spending billions of dollars to divert water from the Gila River, which for now runs freely through southwestern New Mexico. But when Gaume asked last December for a copy of a spreadsheet to better understand the state’s position, the commission required him to sign an agreement that would prohibit him from using the data for “political purposes.” Gaume’s research has become an example of how just a few words buried in New Mexico law give state agencies broad discretion to deny members of the public access to information by prohibiting any use that could be construed as advocacy. Advocates for open government say the restriction is not just a barrier to public information but a violation of civil rights that muffles criticism of the government.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Feb. 15, 2017
Iowa aware of only handful of improper votes of 1.6M ballots
Iowa's top elections official, who is pushing for a voter identification requirement that could make it harder for some to vote, has only been informed of 10 votes that were potentially improper out of nearly 1.6 million counted statewide in the November election. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate's office learned of a handful of cases of alleged double votes and votes cast by ineligible felons on Election Day that were counted, according to a summary of "general election irregularities" obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law. Further review by the AP showed that most of the instances were mistakes rather than fraud, and may not have been stopped by an identification requirement. They included a non-English speaking citizen who mistakenly voted when he registered and again on Election Day, a felon whose voting rights had been restored in Wisconsin but not Iowa, and a non-citizen who turned herself in after learning later she shouldn't have been eligible to vote.
Montana sued for failing to release emails of state senator
Arguing that Montana violated the right to know guaranteed by the state constitution, the Campaign for Accountability filed a lawsuit in district court against the Legislative Services Division and Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder for failing to release records requested under the Montana Open Records Act, which says “every person has a right to examine or obtain a copy of any public information.” “Sen. Fielder has defied Montana government transparency laws apparently to avoid revealing the extent of her actions for the American Lands Council. Given her intransigency, the Campaign for Accountability had no choice to file a lawsuit,” Acting Executive Director Daniel Stevens said.
Kansas lawmakers look at closing police commission records
While calls for police transparency and accountability continue nationally, Kansas lawmakers will consider whether to decrease access to police records. Legislators could vote to exempt from the open records law a list of licensed law enforcement officers, information about officer terminations and complaints filed about officers maintained by a state commission. That information held by the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers' Standards and Training would be considered closed personnel and investigatory records. Lawmakers said law enforcement agencies that report terminations to the commission could release the records if they wanted to, but critics contend they won't. "Sure, they could be made available but 999 times out of 1,000 they're not going to be," said Richard Gannon, Kansas Press Association director of governmental affairs.
Des Moines, Cedar Rapids police body cameras policies differ
Police in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids are beginning to outfit officers with body cameras, but Iowa's two largest cities have adopted significantly different rules for informing the public about the cameras and making the recordings public. The cameras will record a variety of situations, including arrests, traffic stops and incidents requiring force. Des Moines' policy says the state's open records law may require the release of body camera video, but it lays out exceptions, such as an ongoing investigation, The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/2kmnmPm ) reported. The policy also says officers aren't required to tell citizens if a body camera is present. Cedar Rapids' draft policy says the video is "non-public investigative police report information" that will be released only with the police chief's approval. It says officers will tell people when they're being recorded "whenever possible."
Lawsuit: Trump Cabinet nominee has not turned over records
A lawsuit filed Tuesday, Feb. 7, accuses Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, of violating the state open records law by not providing access to emails and other official documents sought for up to two years. The Wisconsin-based advocacy group the Center for Media and Democracy alleges in its lawsuit that "Pruitt has denied prompt, reasonable access" to records sought in nine records requests since 2015 seeking communications between Pruitt and Koch Industries and other coal, oil and gas corporations, as well as the corporate-funded Republican Attorney General's Association. The lawsuit says Pruitt's office acknowledged in August 2016 that it has 3,000 emails and other documents relevant to the Center for Media and Democracy's first request in January 2015 but has yet to turn over any of the records.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Feb. 8, 2017
Hearing delayed on modernizing Colorado's Open Records Act
A state Senate committee has postponed a hearing on a bill designed to modernize Colorado's Open Records Act. Republican Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction said the bill wouldn't be heard Monday, Feb. 6, as scheduled. He didn't announce a new date.
Scott chairs the state Senate, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. Democratic Sen. John Kefalas' bill would require government agencies to release requested public records in their original or searchable data formats, like Excel spreadsheets. That would allow the public to easily analyze those records instead of having to thumb through unwieldy paper or PDF documents. Scott's committee killed a similar bill last year. Colorado's secretary of state's office led a working group of journalists, government representatives, lawmakers and others before the legislative session to forge consensus legislation this year.
Court weighs halting release of police video of shootings
A federal appeals court considered Monday, Feb. 6, whether to automatically halt lower court orders publicly releasing video of fatal shootings by police to prevent potential violence. Judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel acknowledged that the case involving a 2013 shooting of an unarmed man by police in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena was largely moot because the video was released and widely published. But in considering whether U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson abused his discretion by denying Gardena a stay of execution and releasing videos sought by The Associated Press and other news organizations, the court questioned if future video releases should be put on hold to offer a chance of appeal. Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said stays are automatically granted in other types of cases.
News organization threatens to sue Oakland over records on fatal fire
The Bay Area News Group says it will sue Oakland if the city doesn't provide police and fire department records by next week on a warehouse fire that killed 36 people.
The East Bay Times (http://bayareane.ws/2l2ZSyu), one of the group's newspapers, reports Thursday, Feb. 2, that its lawyers cited inexcusable delays in a letter to the city demanding the public records. The letter was sent exactly two months after the fire during a concert at an artists' loft called the Ghost Ship. Investigators say the structure was a dangerous jumble of makeshift stairs and room dividers with no clear exit paths. The newspaper says the documents could help explain how the city missed chances to shutter the building. Messages left seeking comment from the mayor's office by the newspaper and the Associated Press were not immediately returned.
Kansas lawmakers consider strengthening open government law
Two bills before a Kansas Senate committee would make government meetings and records more accessible to the public. The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee heard the bills Thursday, Feb. 2. One bill, introduced by Lawrence Sen. Marci Francisco and Louisburg Rep. Molly Baumgartner, clarifies a law that requires government bodies to justify going into private meetings. The reason for the private meeting would have to be recorded in public minutes. The other bill reduces how much government entities can charge for public records. It caps the price per page and requires staff time be charged at the lowest hourly rate for a qualified employee. Committee Chairman Jacob LaTurner says the bills will be worked next week. LaTurner has advocated for legislation that would curb the costs of getting public records.
Attorney general: WKU open records denials were illegal
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear has found that Western Kentucky University officials acted illegally by turning down open records requests from two student newspaper representatives. The Daily News of Bowling Green (http://bit.ly/2kv0dNF ) reports that Beshear concluded in a Jan. 26 ruling that WKU's decisions to turn down open records requests from Matthew Smith of the Kentucky Kernel and Nicole Ares of the College Heights Herald violated the state's open records statute. Both students last fall sought access to records related to sexual misconduct investigations. The attorney general wrote that Smith and Ares must be allowed access to the disputed records, with the exception of personal identifiers of the complaintant and witnesses. WKU general counsel Deborah Wilkinssaid said in an email Monday that the university is considering whether to appeal.
Michigan House members introduce new public records proposal
Michigan House members on Wednesday, Feb. 1, introduced a public records proposal they say will increase transparency. The package of bills would subject the governor and lawmakers to public records requests. It is a new attempt to get legislation to the governor's desk after similar bills won overwhelming approval in the Republican-led House last year only to die in the GOP-controlled Senate. The bipartisan proposal's lead sponsors are state Reps. Lee Chatfield, a Republican from Levering, and Jeremy Moss, a Democrat from Southfield. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said he had concerns with last year's bills dealing with constituents' communications with lawmakers becoming public. Chatfield and Moss say they believe the bills address those concerns. The legislation gained momentum last year in the wake of Flint's water crisis and a sex scandal that forced two legislators from office.
Tardy payments in whistleblower case boosts school's costs
Chicago State University has been ordered by a Cook County judge to pay $4.3 million to a school official who was fired after accusing the school's former president of misconduct. That's about $1 million more than a jury awarded in 2014 to attorney James Crowley because the university has delayed paying damages in a whistleblower lawsuit. The jury in 2014 found Crowley was fired for turning over former university president Wayne Watson's employment records to a faculty member under the state's open record law, and for exposing questionable university contracts. Crowley said Tuesday, Jan. 31, he hopes a newly appointed university board of trustees brings the case to a close rather than spend more money contesting the case. In a statement, Chicago State spokeswoman Sabrina Land maintained the judgment was "an unusual and high verdict in an employment case."
Officer 'does not trust' FWPD to investigate leaked bodycam video
The Fort Worth police officer who was punished after his controversial arrest of a woman in December doesn’t trust the police department to investigate the leak of a bodycam video of the incident, his lawyer said. Officer William Martin “has lost all faith” in the department and instead wants the city’s Civil Service Commission to investigate the video leak, according to a motion filed by attorney Terry Daffron. The bodycam video was provided last week to The Associated Press by attorney Lee Merritt, who represents Jacqueline Craig, the woman arrested by Martin on Dec. 21. Merritt told reporters he received the video from a “trusted police source,” whom he declined to identify. City officials called the leak “illegal,” a violation of the state open records law, and said police would investigate how Merritt obtained the video as well as details from Martin’s confidential personnel file.