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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.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Feb. 1, 2017
Air Force Academy to pay $25,000 to settle suit over records
The Air Force Academy in Colorado has agreed to pay $25,000 in legal expenses to a religious freedom advocacy group to settle a lawsuit over the group's request for records. The academy and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation announced the settlement Monday, Jan. 30. The foundation says the academy also agreed to broaden its search for records the foundation requested. Foundation president and founder Mikey Weinstein says the documents concern the academy's internal responses to him, his family and the organization. Weinstein is a persistent critic of the school, accusing it of favoring evangelical Christianity. His lawsuit accused the academy of delaying some documents and withholding others. The academy says it didn't admit any wrongdoing in the settlement. It says it had a backlog of records requests when Weinstein filed his in 2011.
State still slow to respond to some public records requests
Most Wisconsin state agencies are now systematically tracking requests for public records but can still take weeks to respond to relatively straightforward queries, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has found. The newspaper made a records request to 22 key state agencies and officials to track their compliance with an order by Gov. Scott Walker in March 2016 seeking to strengthen the state's most important tool for providing information to the public. The upshot: The agencies that responded to the newspaper are following the basics of Walker's order. But bureaucracy and slow response times can still delay answers for citizens. The Walker administration has worked with agencies to implement the governor's order and checked up on them to make sure they are doing so. But the administration hasn't made agencies show records to prove they're doing what they say.
New Jersey court allows 3rd-party open records requests
Citizens are allowed to seek public records of similar requests filed by others, a New Jersey appeals court ruled Friday, Jan. 27, in a case that touched on the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal. The case is the latest in the ongoing debate over which government records are considered public and which can be kept confidential. The plaintiffs had sought public records requests filed to numerous state agencies. One plaintiff requested all public records requests connected to the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case, in which two former aides of Republican Gov. Chris Christie and an official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were charged with creating traffic jams to punish a Democratic mayor who didn't endorse Christie.
Texas DA says she was required to release shooting video
A North Texas district attorney denied a claim Wednesday, Jan. 25, that her office unlawfully released a video showing a police officer shooting a black man as he walked away. Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson responded to a complaint this week by the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas alleging that releasing the video before a grand jury heard the case violated state law. The organization, Texas' largest law enforcement officer union, posted on Facebook that its director had filed the complaint on Tuesday with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said that the attorney general only has jurisdiction over open records crimes if the case is referred by a local prosecutor or if the office is appointed by a judge or special prosecutor to consider the case.
Pitino, Louisville rebut NCAA findings in escort scandal
Louisville is disputing the NCAA's allegation that Rick Pitino violated his responsibility as a head coach by failing to monitor former staffer Andre McGee's activities that resulted in a sex scandal and subsequent investigation by the governing body. The school on Wednesday, Jan. 25, released responses it submitted last week after receiving a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA that included four violations by the basketball program and criticism of Pitino for failing to monitor the former Cardinals basketball staffer who an escort has said hired her and others for sex parties with recruits and players. In one of three responses – obtained by The Associated Press through an Open Records Request - Louisville stated that Pitino "fostered a culture" of compliance and that McGee's activities couldn't have been monitored by "reasonable" practices because he intended to avoid detection.
Judges rules in favor of university in open-records case
A Kentucky judge has sided with the state's flagship university in an open-records dispute involving a student newspaper's dogged pursuit of documents it wants to review in a sexual harassment investigation of a former professor. In his ruling Monday, Jan. 23, Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark reversed a state attorney general's opinion in the case pitting the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper. The AG's office said last year that the university had violated the state's open-records law by refusing to release documents on the professor's case to the newspaper on the Lexington campus. The university responded by suing the campus newspaper. Under state law, the AG's opinions can be appealed, but the attorney general cannot be named as a party in the suit. The university said its dispute was with Attorney General Andy Beshear, not the campus newspaper.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Jan. 26, 2017
Judge keeps alive newspaper case seeking BYU police emails
A judge is keeping alive a newspaper open-records lawsuit aimed at obtaining Brigham Young University police emails for a probe of allegations that sex assault victims who made honor code complaints were improperly investigated. A university spokeswoman said Monday, Jan. 23, that BYU intends to provide more information to 3rd District Judge Laura Scott, following her ruling on Friday. The judge denied BYU's bid to dismiss the Salt Lake Tribune lawsuit. The Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/2jUSBnP ) it wants to review emails between campus police and the university's honor code and Title IX offices. BYU argues that because it's privately owned by the Mormon church, campus police aren't subject to state open records law. The Tribune argues that BYU police are like any other law enforcement agency, and their records are public.
Another stand for Open Records Act in Oklahoma
Retired Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor has always been a fierce advocate of Oklahoma's Open Records Act — which is something his final decision as a Supreme Court justice proved to strengthen. While serving as a justice on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, he had the opportunity to write some very strong opinions regarding open records, Taylor told the McAlester News-Capital (http://bit.ly/2k5s9YP ). The very last opinion he wrote, issued last month, was the eight-to-one opinion ordering that a video showing University of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon striking a female be made public. Following the 2014 incident, the city of Norman had mounted a legal battle to keep the video sealed — and the lower courts concurred. Then, in December, 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the video of Mixon punching the woman be made available to the media and the public .
UW-Madison suspends fraternity for serving minors
A University of Wisconsin-Madison committee suspended a fraternity chapter Tuesday, Jan. 17, amid allegations members provided alcohol to minors and sang a song glorifying multiple sexual assaults. The university said in a news release late Tuesday afternoon that the Committee on Student Organization had voted to suspend the Sigma Chi chapter until March 1. The news release said the suspension was tied to an event in October at the fraternity's off-campus house in which members served or provided minors with alcohol. The Associated Press filed an open records request with the university seeking all documents related to the Oct. 6 incident. The school released 12 pages that indicate the school received a report through its online bias incident reporting that described an event at the Sigma Chi house where students heard and watched fraternity members signing a song about a presumably fictional Sigma Chi member who sexually assaulted 100 women against a wall and masturbated. The complaint said "there was beer everywhere."
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Jan. 17, 2017
Regent: Response to ISU plane scandal was 'slap in the face'
The Board of Regents' decision to take no action against Iowa State University President Steven Leath for misusing university airplanes was "a slap in the face" to taxpayers, a regent later complained to his colleagues. Regent Subhash Sahai told board leaders in a Dec. 20 email that he was embarrassed that the board let Leath off the hook, saying that any other professional "would have been severely sanctioned." He rebutted Regent Larry McKibben, who had praised Leath's apology and corrective actions by saying "Glory Hallelujah." "It was not 'Glory Hallelujah' but a slap in the face of common sense of the people of State of Iowa, what ISU stands for, transparency and accountability that we have been working so hard on for past 3 years," Sahai wrote to McKibben, Board President Bruce Rastetter and Pro Tem Katie Mulholland in the email, which was obtained Wednesday, Jan. 11, through an open records request. He said university presidents should be held to the highest standards because they set "legal, ethical but also moral standards for our future citizens."
State high court hears Sioux Falls settlement records case
The city of Sioux Falls has defended to the state Supreme Court its decision not to disclose details of a $1 million settlement over faulty siding at the Denny Sanford Premier Center. South Dakota’s high court heard arguments Wednesday, Jan. 11, in the case filed by Argus Leader Media (http://argusne.ws/2jEx9Uh) against the city.
The city in 2015 announced the settlement with contractors over the bulging panels but didn't provide details, citing in part a confidentiality agreement. The newspaper sued after the city declined to give access to documents related to the settlement. A lower court sided with the city, and the newspaper appealed. The city argues that the state's open records law lets governments keep contracts private if the parties involved agree. The newspaper says that argument runs counter to the Legislature's intent when it passed the law.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Jan. 12, 2017
University settles with student who wouldn't counsel gays
Missouri State University has agreed to pay $25,000 to a former student who sued after he was removed from a master's degree counseling program because he said he wouldn't counsel gay couples. Andrew Cash sued the university in April. The settlement with the Missouri State Board of Governors was final last month but reported Monday, Jan. 9, after The Springfield News-Leader (http://sgfnow.co/2i9UoQJ ) submitted an open records request. The $25,000 is the estimated cost for Cash to obtain a master's degree at another university. University spokeswoman Suzanne Shaw says the settlement will be paid from the state's legal defense fund. The settlement prevents Cash from seeking admission or employment at Missouri State and the university did not admit liability.
April hearing set in open records dispute on police shooting
A judge could hear arguments from an Iowa newspaper in April as it seeks records related to a fatal 2015 police shooting in Burlington. The Hawk Eye reports (http://bit.ly/2i5EJCg ) an April 19 hearing has been scheduled in its effort to obtain police videos and other records. Burlington officer Jesse Hill accidentally shot 34-year-old Autumn Steele in January 2015 while responding to a fight between Steele and her husband. The newspaper and Steele's family want to see investigative files related to the shooting. Burlington police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation are resisting the open records request. They say they have fulfilled what the law requires by releasing basic details about the shooting and a 12-second video from Hill's body camera.
New Mexico high court OKs new online access to court records
New Mexico's court system plans to allow attorneys, law enforcement agencies and the news media to have secure online access to state court records in most civil and criminal cases. The Supreme Court says the policy will improve governmental transparency, assist attorneys and government agencies do their work and help the media to provide timely and accurate information to the public. The court's announcement Friday, Jan. 6, says the access could begin as early as March. According to the court, approved users will be able to view and download court documents that are public records through a secure, restricted access system. The court says the public will be able to also have online access to case records in the future when there's funding to electronically redact records to remove protected information.
Wisconsin superintendent candidate hired as consultant
Wisconsin state superintendent candidate John Humphries has been rehired as a consultant at the school district where he previously worked, freeing him up to focus on the race. Humphries was hired as a consultant by the Dodgeville School Board on the same day in December that he resigned from his job as the district's director of state and federal programs, The Wisconsin State Journal reported Thursday, Jan. 5, (http://bit.ly/2jejSkS ). He is challenging incumbent state Superintendent Tony Evers in the race to head the state Department of Public Instruction. Former Beloit superintendent Lowell Holtz is also running. The primary is Feb. 21 and the general election for the top two vote-getters is April 4. Humphries' firm, BrainDance LLC, will receive up to $39,000 under a six-month contract through June. The State Journal obtained Humphries' consulting firm's contract and emails about his resignation under the state's open records law.
Court unseals police interview of student who killed teacher
Video of a 14-year-old student being questioned by Massachusetts police investigators in the hours after he killed high school math teacher Colleen Ritzer is being unsealed. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, Jan. 4, that the video could be shown to news reporters or members of the public who go to the courthouse to see it, but can't be copied. Philip Chism (CHIHZ'-uhm) was convicted last year of aggravated rape, robbery and murder. He was sentenced to life with eligibility for parole in 40 years. Ritzer was killed inside a Danvers High School bathroom in 2013. Her family says it's disappointed by the court ruling. A family statement says release of the video is unnecessary and will cause the family to endure further agony.
2 Texas lawmakers seek to tighten public records law
Two Texas lawmakers want to tighten public records laws to make it harder for governments and the companies they do business with to keep financial information secret. Sen. Kirk Watson, who's an Austin Democrat, and GOP Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of Keller said Tuesday, Jan. 3, they'll file bills to require companies to prove they would be disclosing key trade secrets if the businesses want to withhold information. The Texas Supreme Court in 2015 allowed aircraft giant Boeing to keep secret a lease agreement with the San Antonio Port Authority. State Attorney General Ken Paxton has said the ruling allows companies doing business with local governments to keep secret the details of financial agreements. Open records advocates say that's a giant loophole in the public's right to know how governments spend money.
Video shows suspect in pain after Iowa trooper's gun strike
4 Georgia firefighters fired in Cherokee County
Four Georgia firefighters in Cherokee County have been fired amid allegations of misconduct. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports (http://on-ajc.com/2iNKG7k ) Capt. Chuck Foster, Capt. Mike Malone and firefighters Chad Huff and Brandon Wilson are appealing the decisions. According to a report from the county attorney's office, an investigation started in October when a former firefighter accused Foster of sexual harassment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained that report this week through an open records request. The accuser — a woman — later came forward with other allegations, including a cellphone image of Huff and Wilson engaged in a lewd act. The photo had been sent to her to cheer her up after she was fired for failing a drug test. Huff, Wilson and Malone said they weren't trying to offend anyone; they were simply having fun.
Texas ice cream maker Blue Bell wants precautions eased
The Houston Chronicle is reporting Texas-based ice cream maker Blue Bell wants federal regulators to ease precautions in place since a deadly listeria outbreak and allow the company to return to more normal procedures followed by its competitors. The newspaper (http://bit.ly/2idy1NY ), reviewing documents obtained under a federal open records request, says Blue Bell has been working for months with a laboratory to develop tests to meet federal Food and Drug Administration requirements, prevent future outbreaks and help Blue Bell improve its economics. An attorney for Blue Bell, Joseph Levitt, has written the FDA that it's time for the company "to transition to the industry norm." Blue Bell had to shut its flagship Brenham creamery for several months after last year's recall was linked to 10 listeria cases in four states, including three deaths in Kansas.
Feds: Veterans home staff mishandled liquid oxygen
The federal government has confirmed staff at Wisconsin's largest veterans home mishandled liquid oxygen and were told not to document the incident. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has substantiated a complaint alleging staff at the home in King allowed liquid oxygen, which is highly flammable, to leak into the ventilation system, The Capital Times reported Thursday (http://bit.ly/2hxliVD).
According to the complaint, the home's security chief told a staff member who discovered the leak not to write a report, saying security staff had been told not to detail incidents any longer out of concerns the reports would be subject to the open records law. The CMS didn't cite the home because the problem has been fixed and a corrective plan has been put in place.
Ohio high court: Completed crime case files are open record
The investigative files of a completed criminal case are a public record under Ohio law and can be released even if further appeals are possible, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, Dec. 28, in a lawsuit brought by the Ohio Innocence Project.
Public records lawyers had argued that police departments were improperly interpreting earlier court decisions and arguing they could shield the files of long-closed cases until the defendants died. At issue was an attempt by the Innocence Project to review the case of a man sentenced to 38 years in prison for killing a woman in 2005. The project doesn't represent defendant Adam Saleh but wants to review the records, which Saleh alleges will bolster his claim that he didn't do it.
A divided court ruled Friday that the files, with some exceptions, become a public record once a trial is over.
Former Wisconsin Corrections head loses appeal of firing
A state panel rejected former state Corrections secretary Ed Wall's appeal of his firing, saying he knowingly tried to evade Wisconsin's open records law. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission issued a ruling earlier in December throwing out Wall's appeal of his firing from a backup job within the state Department of Justice. Wall's attorney Lester Pines told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/2inSI6O ) on Friday, Dec. 23, that he was likely to file an appeal with the circuit court. Wall stepped down as the head of the state prison system in February amid concerns about how the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison was being run. Wall tried to secretly lobby Gov. Scott Walker's chief of staff Rich Zipperer to return to his old job as administrator of the state Division of Criminal Investigation.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Dec. 21, 2016
Regulators, insurers fight release of shadow insurance files
The insurance industry and its regulators are asking a judge to allow documents detailing "shadow insurance" subsidiaries created by life insurers to remain secret. The Iowa Insurance Division and the Federation of Iowa Insurers are opposing a lawsuit filed by Indiana University professor emeritus Joseph Belth, who's seeking the documents under Iowa's open records law. Belth believes that the "shadow insurance" instruments threaten the solvency of insurers, and the public has a right to know. Companies such as TransAmerica have transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities to subsidiaries to loosen the amount of capital they need in reserves. An assistant attorney general argued last week that regulators properly denied Belth's request and the documents should be kept confidential.
Newspapers challenge judge's order banning media from court
Two Virginia newspapers are challenging a judge's decision to bar media from attending a court hearing in a state lawmaker's criminal case. The Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot report that have appealed the judge's order barring journalists from Del. Rick Morris' hearing to the Suffolk Circuit Court. During the hearing at the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Thursday, Dec. 15, Judge Robert S. Brewbaker Jr. dismissed six of seven felony charges against Morris. The lawmaker was accused of hitting a boy with a belt and wooden spoon, punching him and throwing a hose nozzle at him. Brewbaker said media outlets weren't allowed in the hearing because a key witness was a child. The newspapers say a member of the public was allowed to attend at least part of the hearing, but not the media.
Notes could explain juror's dismissal in congressman's case
Des Moines attorney to pay fine in open records case
The Des Moines County attorney has agreed to pay a $200 fine but not admit guilt in an open records case stemming from a 2015 police shooting that left a Burlington, Iowa, woman dead. The Hawk Eye (http://bit.ly/2hwkEX7 ) reports Burlington Officer Jesse Hill accidentally shot 34-year-old Autumn Steele to death in January 2015 while responding to a fight between Steele and her husband. Steele's family and The Hawk Eye requested copies of all public records related to the incident, including police audio, body camera footage and investigative reports. A complaint says Des Moines County attorney Amy Beavers, along with the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, violated the state's open records law by denying records requests. The agencies say they satisfied Iowa law by releasing a 12-second body camera video of the incident.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Dec. 14, 2016
Public hospital refuses to release terms of settlement
A county-owned hospital in western Iowa is refusing to reveal the amount of a settlement paid to the family of a woman who died from a botched colonoscopy, despite state law that says settlements made by government agencies are public record. Crawford County Memorial Hospital CEO Bill Bruce told the Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/2h9T3g7 ) that he can't release the settlement because of a judge's order sealing records in the patient's estate. The settlement was reached in April in a lawsuit filed by the husband of Carole Christiansen, who died in November 2014. The lawsuit said a hospital surgeon accidentally punctured Christiansen's colon during a colonoscopy. The surgeon recognized the error, but did not immediately operate to fix the inch-long tear. Surgery was performed the next day, but the tear had allowed intestinal contents to leak into Christiansen's abdomen, causing a severe infection. She died eight days later.
Chicago mayor ordered to produce index of messages for Tribune
A Cook County judge on Friday, Dec. 9, ordered the city of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to produce an index of certain emails and text messages that the mayor sent and received on personal devices, as the Chicago Tribune and the city continue to battle over the mayor's electronic communications. Judge Kathleen Pantle made the ruling in the Tribune's September 2015 lawsuit, which alleged that Emanuel had violated state open records laws by refusing to release communications about city business that he had conducted through emails and texts on personal devices. The city had argued that those communications to and from Emanuel were not subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit stemmed from the Tribune's open records requests for electronic communications related to subjects that include the city's scandal-plagued red light camera program, as well as email and text correspondence between the mayor and Michael Sacks, a top Emanuel adviser and contributor to his campaign fund.
Court: Video of Oklahoma football player punching woman must be released,
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled that the video recording of University of Oklahoma football player Joe Mixon punching a woman in a Norman restaurant must be released for public viewing. The state's highest court issued the ruling Tuesday, Dec. 6, in a case brought by the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters against the city of Norman, the Norman Police Department and the Cleveland County District Attorney. It's unclear, however, if the video will be immediately released. One Norman city official said an appeal for a re-hearing of the ruling remains possible, which could delay release of the video until at least January 2017. Mixon, a running back who has become one of the top football players in the Big 12, punched Amelia Molitor, a fellow OU student at the time, in July 2014.
OPEN RECORDS, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION • Dec. 7, 2016
Proposed open records policy punts on contentious issues
Records custodians across Tennessee would be left to decide over several contentious open government issues under a proposed model policy now open for public review and comment. A new state law requires all government entities to adopt a public records policy by July, and the state Office of Open Records Counsel has developed has a draft with its recommended best practices. The draft would leave it up to local governments to decide whether to accept public records requests electronically and if requesters would be allowed to make copies with their phones or other personal devices. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government says it "will strongly oppose language that suggests government entities may create rules that inhibit access to public records." Feedback can be emailed until Dec. 15 to: email@example.com.
Newspaper: Butte citizens have lost faith in Superfund talks
Confidential Superfund settlement negotiations to clean up a century's worth of mining waste in Butte, Montana, need to be opened to the public because residents have lost faith that the U.S. government will protect their interests, an attorney for a Montana newspaper said Tuesday, Nov. 29. Butte residents once had trust that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would look out for them, Montana Standard attorney James Goetz told U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon in a court hearing. But that trust has been eroded as the agency's negotiations with Atlantic Richfield Co. have dragged on more than 14 years after Haddon ordered the talks to be held in secret, Goetz said. If Haddon grants the request, Montana Standard editor David McCumber said, the newspaper will seek documents from the negotiations dating back to 2002 or 2003. The newspaper also will seek to open the settlement talks going forward, so the public can be a part of the process "in real time," McCumber said.
Federal judge orders disclosure of food stamp information
The U.S. Department of Agriculture must disclose to the Argus Leader newspaper, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the annual food stamp revenues for stores nationwide participating in the federal program, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, Nov. 30.
U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier in Sioux Falls disagreed with the Agriculture Department's argument that such disclosure would inflict competitive harm on grocery stores participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Witnesses for the Department of Agriculture during a 2016 bench trial said that the grocery industry is highly competitive because profit margins are low and that disclosing the food stamp information could be used against businesses by their competitors.
Court shields complaints about troopers from disclosure
A Pennsylvania court says the state police don't have to release six misconduct complaints about a now-fired trooper. The Commonwealth Court decision Nov. 23 says complaints against ex-Trooper Michael Trotta are exempt under Pennsylvania's open records law because they relate to noncriminal investigations. A civil litigation lawyer from Florida had sought access to complaints against Trotta. The lawyer had argued that the complaints should be disclosed, even if the records from any resulting investigations are exempt. Pennlive reports (http://bit.ly/2fzb2eI) that Trotta was fired last year, several months after being accused of using excessive force while arresting a skateboarder in Harrisburg. The skateboarder is suing Trotta and another trooper in federal court. State police settled another federal lawsuit against Trotta over a claim he detained and strip-searched a man without legal justification.
New Jersey Supreme Court nixes woman's bid for town's security video
The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday, Nov. 22, ruled a northern New Jersey town doesn't have to release security camera footage from outside its town hall under state open records laws. In a split decision, the court held that Bloomfield Township was correct in denying the request for the video by a woman who sought footage from a five-day period but later modified the request to cover one day. The ruling reversed earlier rulings by a lower court judge and a state appeals court.
The town had argued the video could reveal information about the security system's operation and its vulnerabilities. It also argued confidential informants or victims of domestic violence might appear on the video. In a 4-2 decision with Justice Anne Patterson not participating, the court agreed, writing that in drafting the Open Public Records Act, the Legislature "created flexible exceptions to preserve public safety and security."
Texas has spent over $7 million fighting foster care lawsuit
Texas has spent more than $7 million fighting a class-action lawsuit over its troubled foster care system. Since 2011, three state agencies have spent nearly $6.6 million in lawyers' and other state staff members' time and on travel, transcription services and other expenses related to the federal suit, according to data obtained by The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/2fDVkAI ) under Texas' open records law. Additionally, the Department of Family and Protective Services has been forced to pay $650,000 for salary and travel expenses of the two experts appointed by the court to come up with a reform plan. Last December, U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack declared Texas' foster care system unconstitutionally flawed and ordered the independent overhaul. The lawsuit was filed in 2011 by the New York-based advocacy group Children's Rights and multiple Texas law firms.
Open records law continues to draw proposals for revision
It's been nearly a decade since state lawmakers completely rewrote the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law, making fundamental changes to what had widely been considered among the nation's weakest legislation on access to government records. The revised law has made a vast amount of information available to the public, substantially increased the workload for state courts and produced a number of proposals to amend it. Here’s a look at some of what's been under consideration.
Laws keep most Pennsylvania police videos out of public view
Five departments disclosed at least some of what their officers' vehicle cameras recorded at specific scenes identified by journalists during a coordinated test of how public entities are applying the state Right-to-Know Law.
Iowa State rented plane while idling its own
Iowa State University spent up to $225 per hour to rent an airplane for President Steven Leath to fly himself to meetings on multiple occasions even as an older school plane that he piloted sat unused. The university rented the plane from prominent Ames landlord Brent Haverkamp, who was later awarded a lease to store his planes in an Iowa State hangar after the school evicted a longtime tenant, documents obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law show.
At the time of the rentals in 2013 and 2014, the university owned a four-seat Piper plane that Leath had routinely flown. Leath spokeswoman Megan Landolt said the 1978 Piper was slower than Haverkamp's 2004 Cirrus, needed safety and avionics upgrades, and was "therefore not efficient for the kind of travel done on these five occasions."
Information board director quits to take Iowa Senate post
The director of the Iowa Public Information Board has quit so he can become secretary of the Iowa Senate. The Des Moines Register reports (http://dmreg.co/2gLEFsb ) that Charlie Smithson told the board's nine members in an email last week that his resignation is effective Thursday, Dec. 1. The board enforces the state's open records and open meeting laws and began operation in July 2013. Smithson has been its director since Dec. 1, 2014. Margaret Johnson will be interim director while the board looks for someone to replace Smithson. Ed Failor Jr. is an aide to Iowa Senate Republican leader Bill Dix, and Failor confirmed Wednesday that Smithson will be named secretary of the Senate when the GOP takes majority control in January.
Spending on blocking public records requests is murky
Public records being turned over, but some with heavy edits
Government offices across Pennsylvania didn't apply the state's Right-to-Know Law uniformly and sometimes scrubbed critical details from records requests, according to a survey conducted by more than 100 employees of 21 newspapers. The officials, however, were quick to respond to most requests, a sign of improved compliance with the law that was revised eight years ago. Among the survey's findings:
• Requests for documents showing when a government employee had been fired or demoted met with starkly different responses; some agencies willingly turned over severance agreements, others flatly rejected doing so.
• Many government agencies blacked out large portions of documents that were sought to show how much they are paying outside lawyers to deny access to some public records.
• When police dash-cam or body camera videos were sought, only a small percentage were turned over, and when they were, key portions were largely edited out.