Texas official says Democrats must pay $5.7 million for requested records

Thursday, March 23, 2000

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

AUSTIN — Texas Democrats can have copies of 7.5 million e-mails from the office of the state comptroller of public accounts — if they will pay $5.7 million and wait until 2170, said Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. The Texas Democratic Party requested on March 3 copies of all the comptroller’s e-mails since January 1999 to save them from a planned purge, said Mike Hailey, the party’s spokesman. State law dictates that a state agency cannot destroy documents that have been requested under the Texas Public Information Act. Rylander’s office sent a letter March 17 to the Democrats detailing the cost and time requirements for complying with the party’s request. Billy Hamilton, deputy comptroller, says the great majority of the cost is for the salaries of people who must manually remove confidential tax information from about 2 million e-mails.

But according to a Dallas-based government watchdog group, the comptroller’s $5.7 million bill is too high. “When I saw that $5.7 million figure, I thought it was outrageous,” said Russell Fish, co-founder of the Internet Open Records Project in Dallas. Fish says his group, a loose band of two dozen computer “geeks,” has sought access to computer records from government agencies in Dallas and Austin for more than 10 years. Hamilton says the comptroller’s office plans to comply with state law by saving copies of all the important e-mails before the records are deleted. Fish says his group is waiting for an invitation from the Democratic Party to get into the fight. He is confident his group of students, professors and private technology experts can help. Hailey said the Democrats would welcome any assistance. Associated Press

Arkansas: State prosecutor meets with reporter arrested while seeking jail records

MAGNOLIA — Officials from the local newspaper, and one of its reporters, have met with a state prosecutor about the Columbia County sheriff’s refusal to share public documents and about the reporter’s arrest this week. Banner-News management and reporter Toni Walthall met March 21 with Prosecuting Attorney Jamie Pratt. Pratt is to decide if he will prosecute Walthall following her arrest by Sheriff Wayne Tompkins on March 20. Tompkins said Walthall was interfering with government operations when she sought to question him about documents relating to county inmates. “We’ve been advised by lawyers who regularly deal with Freedom of Information issues that the newspaper has many options,” said Betty Chatham, the newspaper’s general manager. “We can ask Mr. Pratt to sue the sheriff and demand that he grant access to public records in the sheriff’s custody. Banner-News Publishing Company can sue the sheriff if Mr. Pratt declines.” After the March 21 meeting, Pratt said he would try to talk with Tompkins.

Pratt was unavailable yesterday to comment on that conversation, or to say if he’d reached a decision as to whether Walthall’s prosecution should proceed. Yesterday morning, Walthall and Banner-News reporter Chris Dean were twice denied access to public records maintained by the sheriff’s office. They tried to inspect the jail log and were rebuffed when they sought out Tompkins — who was not in his office — for permission to inspect a variety of records formally requested on March 20. Tompkins refused on March 21 to allow the same two reporters access to the requested records, saying he had 72 hours to compile the records. He pledged to personally deliver copies of the records to the newspaper before the 72-hour period expired. Associated Press

Nevada: Judge orders documents unsealed in case against state attorney general
LAS VEGAS — A state judge on March 21 ordered the unsealing of documents and videotapes in a case involving claims that the state Attorney General’s office conducted a secret probe of casino regulators. District Judge James Mahan gave Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa’s office until April 4 to appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. The Las Vegas Sun and KLAS-Channel 8 pressed for the release of the documents and videotapes, which former Gaming Control Board Chairman Bill Bible and others think will show Del Papa’s office conducted an illegal investigation. The Sun and KLAS had sought to gain access to the tapes and about 900 pages of documents recently turned over to Mike Anzalone, a former investigator in the attorney general’s office who has alleged he was forced to resign because he wouldn’t participate in the intelligence probe. Anzalone has filed suit against Del Papa.

After the March 21 hearing, Solicitor General Mark Ghan, who is representing the attorney general, told a Sun reporter that he was “disappointed” with the judge’s decision. Ghan had argued that the documents should remain sealed to protect the privacy rights of those named who were not charged with any crimes. Ghan acknowledged during the hearing that some “defamatory statements” were made in the documents. Last week five former gaming regulators signed sworn affidavits urging Mahan to unseal the documents. Topping the list of regulators was Bible, regarded as a political enemy of Del Papa when the probe was launched. Bible, now president of the Nevada Resort Association, said in his affidavit he thought Del Papa gathered intelligence on him and his colleagues as part of the criminal investigation of Ron Harris, a former Control Board electronics expert who pleaded guilty to slot cheating in 1996. Associated Press

Colorado: ACLU sues sheriff for videotape of inmate’s death
DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit March 21 seeking the release of a videotape of guards placing an inmate, who later died, in a restraint chair.
Kenneth Bishop, 43, died on Dec. 18, 1998, shortly after being placed in the chair at the Pueblo County jail. The Pueblo County coroner said Bishop died of an amphetamine overdose. The ACLU argues in its lawsuit that the Colorado Open Records Act requires Sheriff Dan Corsentino to disclose his jail’s policy on the use of restraints. That includes the use of controversial devices such as the restraint board and restraint chair. “Sheriff Corsentino assured the public that Mr. Bishop’s death had nothing to do with the use of the controversial restraint chair,” Mark Silverstein, ACLU’s legal director said in a written statement. “He declared that his deputies followed his policies, but now he won’t let the public read those policies.” Inspector Bill Brown of the sheriff’s internal affairs department had not seen the lawsuit and could not immediately comment. Last month, the ACLU and El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson reached an agreement to halt the use of the restraint board at El Paso County jails and allow the ACLU to monitor the jail’s use of other restraint devices. Associated Press

Kansas: House rejects proposal to reopen business records to the public
TOPEKA — A proposal to reopen corporate records three years after the state Legislature closed them to the public has failed in the House. Until 1997, all corporations had to include statements listing their assets, liabilities and net worths with the annual reports they filed with the secretary of state’s office. State Rep. Richard Alldritt, D-Harper, offered an amendment March 21 to reinstate that requirement to a Senate-passed bill dealing with notarizing corporate records. His amendment failed on a 31-92 vote. The House approved the relatively minor and unamended Senate Bill 529, 120-3, sending it to Gov. Bill Graves. In 1997, legislators came under pressure from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the state’s largest business group, to stop requiring firms to file their detailed financial statements. However, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh actually requested the legislation, selling it as a way to reduce paperwork and trim his office’s spending. During this week’s debate, House members opposed to reinstating the filing requirement said the state should continue to respect business owners’ privacy.

In the past, the information from the balance sheets proved useful to news organizations. In 1997, just before the Legislature changed the law, information gleaned from balance sheets helped The Topeka Capital-Journal raise questions about the state’s involvement in emerging high-technology companies. The state later abandoned a proposal for a new capital fund and authorized the sale of existing investments. In 1994, former Lt. Gov. Dave Owen served a seven-month federal prison sentence for income tax fraud. Harris News Service had first raised questions about his businesses and campaign contributions in 1987, using information from balance sheets. Alldritt suggested that reopening the records would allow Kansans to have information about companies with which the state contracts. “It’s about access to information,” Alldritt said. Associated Press

Kentucky: Press association objects to bill blocking release of personal information

FRANKFORT — A bill sent to Gov. Paul Patton that would block the state from selling or releasing certain personal information has drawn objections from the Kentucky Press Association and Secretary of State John Y. Brown III. Critics of House Bill 130 say it could block public access to many state and local records. The bill, which attracted little notice while rolling through the General Assembly, has been received by Patton’s office and is under review, a spokesman said today. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. John Vincent, said it would not prevent public access to any records that are now open. Vincent said he intended it to block state government from selling or releasing wage data and other personal information it might gather on various forms or applications. Vincent said he was surprised at the alarm about the bill, which drew no dissenting votes in the Legislature.
Vincent said his bill stemmed from a controversy in California last year after a state agency there sold confidential salary data gathered from tax returns to private companies. Jon Fleischaker, attorney for the press association, and Brown said the wording of Vincent’s bill could be interpreted as prohibiting the release of any information provided by any individual or corporation to a state agency. The bill states that public agencies shall not “sell or distribute any information” collected by the state from any individual or corporation on required filings unless the release of that information is expressly authorized by federal or state law. The bill lists seven exceptions to that prohibition, including one that says the prohibition does not apply to any records that are “regularly and customarily open to inspection.” Vincent says that exception makes clear that records currently open to inspection are not affected by the bill. He also says the Open Records Law remains on the books, and the records it currently makes open will remain open. Associated Press

Nebraska: Legislature close to approving public-records bill

Public officials would have to provide copies of public records within four days of a request under a bill under final consideration before the Legislature. If the record could not be provided in that time, the person making the request would have to be notified. Legislative Bill 628 also would require that the cost of providing the copies be reasonably calculated. That means if one agency charges $2 a page while others are charging 15 cents, the higher cost would have to be justified. The bill is supported by Nebraska news media organizations, including the Omaha World-Herald and the Outstate Daily Publishers Association. Associated Press