Arkansas prosecutor drops charges against reporter

Wednesday, April 19, 2000

A roundup of recent court cases, legislation and disputes involving public records.

MAGNOLIA — Charges will be dropped against a reporter who was accused of obstructing governmental operations after attempting to obtain public records from the Columbia County sheriff, state Prosecutor Jamie Pratt said. Banner-News reporter Toni Walthall was charged after a confrontation with Sheriff Wayne Tompkins on March 20. Late last month, Circuit Judge Larry Chandler ruled that Tompkins violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act by not providing records in a timely fashion. The newspaper sued the sheriff after Walthall was charged. Pratt said he had authorized his deputy, Lucky Crumpler, to notify the court of their joint decision not to prosecute. “After careful review of the case file and consultation with Mr. Pratt, I have determined not to pursue prosecution of the referenced matter,” Crumpler said in a one-paragraph letter to Municipal Court Judge Rodney Chambers. “This letter will serve as notice to the defendant’s counsel of this decision.”

Tompkins said yesterday he respected the prosecutor’s decision. Walthall said she never felt like she had done anything wrong. “I hope that I can move on and continue doing my work,” she said. “There’s not any hard feelings. There haven’t been any hard feelings.” Pratt says he hasn’t made a decision on a request by Banner-News Publishing Co. that he prosecute Tompkins on the newspaper’s assertion that the sheriff violated the Arkansas FOIA several times last month. Tompkins ordered Walthall’s arrest after she asked about the weekend whereabouts of Columbia County inmate Reginald Bradley. After the arrest of Walthall, the newspaper sent Tompkins a letter requesting access to a variety of public records dealing with the status of Bradley and other county prisoners. Three days later, Tompkins released the records and told Walthall that Bradley had attended the wedding of the son of Chief Deputy Sheriff Cotis Shepherd during the weekend in question. The newspaper sued the sheriff, alleging he had violated the state’s FOIA. Chandler ruled that the sheriff took too long to produce records. Associated Press

Kansas: House members in quandary over Senate open-records bill
TOPEKA — Members of the House of Representatives don’t know what to do with a Senate proposal for strengthening the state’s open-records law. The House approved its version of the bill first, in March. However, senators concluded House Bill 2864 was so flawed that they scrapped it and substituted their own version, which they approved unanimously on April 7. The Senate’s version of the bill would impose fines of up to $500 on state and local government agencies that knowingly violate the Kansas Open Records Act. Also, each local government agency would have to designate an employee to serve as its freedom-of-information officer. House members now must decide whether to accept the Senate’s version and send it to Gov. Bill Graves or ask that a conference committee of three senators and three House members draft the final version of the bill.

State Rep. Carlos Mayans, chairman of the House Local Government Committee, said April 17 that before legislators recessed their session on April 8, he considered asking the House to accept the Senate’s version of the bill. But he noted legislators already were rushing to finish work on major budget and ethics legislation, so he hesitated. Mayans said some of his colleagues want to force negotiations, so that they can at least review the Senate’s version of the open-records bill more closely. The Senate’s version of the bill eliminates one exemption that allows officials to close to the public lists of bidders on government contracts for construction projects before those contracts are awarded. Those records typically remain open. The Senate’s bill emerged from negotiations involving interested parties, including the Kansas Press Association, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters and the League of Kansas Municipalities. The Legislators’ review of open-records proposals was prompted in part by publication last November of a survey by 19 Kansas newspapers on open-records compliance. Reporters sought records from government agencies in all 105 counties. Agencies denied 34 requests, out of 420 requested. But with more than half of the requests, officials demanded more information from the people requesting the records than required by law. Associated Press

Texas: New law blocks public access to hospital complaints, says state agency
SAN ANTONIO — The Texas Department of Health insists a new state law bars the agency from releasing to the public information about hospital complaints, including investigations into unusual deaths. The author of the House Bill 2824, state Rep. Patricia Gray, D-Galveston, said she never intended the law to be used that way when she authored it during the 1999 legislative session. “The bill has turned into a nightmare,” Gray said. “Suddenly there has just been this shutdown of the flow of information, and that is very disturbing to me. I have considered myself a proponent of more openness, not less.” The bill states that “all information and materials obtained or compiled by the department in connection with a complaint and investigation concerning a hospital are confidential and not subject to disclosure.” It makes the same specification for mental hospitals.

The Associated Press attempted to obtain information from the Texas Department of Health about its investigation into the March 4 death of 14-year-old Willie Wright, who stopped breathing as he was being restrained by workers at a psychiatric hospital in San Antonio. Vyki Robbins, a disclosure officer with the health department’s facility and compliance division in Austin, said the new law prevented the agency from releasing any information about complaints at general or psychiatric hospitals. She said she could not even confirm the death of the San Antonio boy. If there was a penalty or enforcement action resulting from the investigation, that information could be made public, but details of the case could not, she said.

The secrecy law took effect Sept. 1, 1999. The initial purpose of the bill was to give subpoena powers to several state licensing boards, such as those overseeing dietitians and family therapists, Gray said. The Texas Department of Health does administrative work for the boards and requested the bill. An amendment requiring confidentiality was added at the request of the Texas Hospital Association. “We were very concerned that patient privacy was not protected with these types of investigations,” said Ann Ward, vice president for communications with the hospital association. But Ward contends the law allows the health department to release a notice of an alleged violation if a complaint is substantiated as legitimate, a general statement about the allegation, the pleadings of both sides and the final decision on the complaint. Gray also maintains those items are public. She says she wants to clarify the law in the 2001 Texas Legislature. She acknowledged if hospital investigations are kept secret, the public might never learn about unsafe psychiatric institutions or mysterious hospital deaths. Associated Press

Missouri: ‘Sunshine’ bill would allow closed hospital records
JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation to strengthen Missouri’s open-records law now includes provisions that would allow public hospitals to close many of their records. Under the original bill sponsored by state Sen. Joe Maxwell, public bodies that illegally closed meetings or records could be hit with fines up to $2,500. Current law allows maximum fines of $500. The hospital records provisions were added to Maxwell’s bill by the state House Civil and Administrative Law Committee on April 12. The committee approved sending the bill to the full House for debate. The House panel also increased the maximum fine for violations of the state Sunshine Law to $25,000, but capped the fine at 5% of the political body’s operating budget. State Auditor Claire McCaskill recently released an audit indicating nearly half of public governmental bodies in Missouri weren’t complying with the state Sunshine Law’s requirements on open records. She supports increasing the possible penalties for violations. Associated Press