Louisiana reporter sued for filing a public records request wins her case

A Louisiana reporter who was sued for filing a public records request has won what appears to be a total vindication.

Andrea Gallo, a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, will received the documents she was seeking under the ruling by Judge Tim Kelley. And the state attorney general, Jeff Landry, will have to pay $5,625 to cover Gallo’s court costs. But don’t gloat too much — the taxpayers will foot that bill.

The records Gallo sought are related to a sexual harassment investigation of one of Landry’s top aides.

Earlier:

No, good government on Beacon Hill will not lead to bad government

You would think that reforming the opaque workings of the Massachusetts legislature would be something everyone could agree on. In fact, though, you can always find someone to defend the status quo.

Last summer, for example, New England School of Law Professor Lawrence Friedman wrote in The Boston Globe that the legislature should keep its exemption from the state’s public records law even though Massachusetts is only one of just four states with such a secrecy statute.

“It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Now Raymond La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst, has written a commentary for CommonWealth magazine arguing that efforts to make committee votes public are misguided and would lead to more power for the legislative leadership. Such a move would also create incentives for grandstanding by members, La Raja argues, conjuring up the dysfunction in Washington as a warning:

Congress is an obvious example of where “messaging” has become more important to many than legislating. Using Twitter, members can score political points against opponents, shame colleagues, and try to torpedo discussions on policy. Calling out colleagues on committee votes or internal deliberations is especially valuable to extremists who value purity. The model here is the Freedom Caucus, whose members call other Republicans “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) and threaten to enlist primary opponents against them. This kind of behavior erodes goodwill and the ability to forge the kind of compromises that make democracy possible.

CommonWealth contributor Colman M. Herman disagrees, writing that the Massachusetts legislature “is one of the least transparent legislatures in the entire nation.” Herman is right. And the idea that good government will lead to bad government is absurd. If our elected officials need secrecy in order to do the right thing, then we are in mighty bad shape.

A Louisiana reporter files a public-records request — and gets sued for her efforts

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

Well, this is certainly a novel response to receiving a public-records request. The Republican attorney general of Louisiana, Jeff Landry, has sued a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune. The newspapers are seeking records about an official in the AG’s office who’s been accused of sexual misconduct. Landry has asked a judge to issue a declaratory judgment turning down the request and sealing the proceedings.

“In my 40 years as an editor, I’ve never seen a journalist get sued for requesting a public record,” Peter Kovacs, the newspaper’s editor, was quoted as saying. “We’re not intimidated. In fact, we’re more determined.” The reporter, Andrea Gallo, took to Twitter to warn: “I worry about reverse FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] suits against those who do not have my level of resources to fight back. Another reason to support local journalism!

In fact, Gallo’s fears are already coming true. According to The Washington Post, such lawsuits are on the rise, with University of Georgia professor Jonathan Peters citing such examples as a lawsuit against a student newspaper filed by a university and an education agency that sued a nonprofit seeking enrollment information. Peters told the Post:

Government officials generally claim that these actions are initiated in good faith and that it is prudent for courts to step in immediately if an agency’s disclosure obligations are unclear. But suing record requesters is unwise, democratically dangerous, and usually unlawful.

Here in Massachusetts, reporters have long since grown accustomed to having their public-records requests ignored. Thanks to a weak state law, penalties for ignoring a valid public-records request are minimal, and government officials take full advantage of that. But suing journalists for seeking public records takes matters to a new and dangerous level.

A group project in the age of COVID: What worked, what didn’t and what we learned about making it better

The COVID pandemic made the fall semester a challenge for everyone. As someone who teaches journalism, I found that challenge to be especially acute. I wanted to give my intermediate-reporting students the same real-life experience as I have with my previous classes, but I needed to do it with the understanding that pavement-pounding and door-knocking were out of the question.

The previous fall, we’d had some success with a group project. My Northeastern University undergrads visited nine governmental offices in the Boston area and requested public records. They reported on their experience and whether they were asked to do anything forbidden by the law, such as produce identification. They also took photos of the places they had visited. Could a similar project be adapted to the age of Zoom?

Read the rest at Storybench.

CommonWealth report shows that the state’s new public records law isn’t working

Following up on my WGBH News column about the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law, I want to call your attention to this excellent article (which predated mine) in CommonWealth Magazine by Colman Herman.

Herman took a look at the (slightly) improved public records law more than three years after it took effect — and what he found demonstrates the need to go back and reform the law root and branch. Among the lowlights:

  • Provisions aimed at toughening the penalties for compliance have been ineffective. Among the most egregious offenders are the State Police and the Boston Police, which, he writes, “take extraordinary measures to withhold documents in their entirety from public view.”
  • A provision that was supposed to make it easier for members of the press and the public to access public records without having to pay high fees has fallen short of that goal. Herman reports that when he asked for copies of disciplinary actions taken against massage therapists over a five-year period, “officials demanded $2,000 before it would turn over any records.”
  • Agencies regularly cite the multiple exemptions built into the law in order to deny access to such obviously public documents as MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak’s contract — which was turned over, Herman writes, but only after a considerable delay.
  • Turning enforcement over to Attorney General Maura Healey has had mixed results, with the attorney general’s office in some cases failing to uphold orders issued by the secretary of state’s office.

“The adages are many — information is the currency of democracy, sunlight is the best disinfectant, democracy depends on an informed citizenry,” Herman writes. “But in Massachusetts, these beliefs often still get shunted aside when it comes to accessing public records even under the new Public Records Law.”

Herman’s article is further evidence that open government in Massachusetts is more myth than reality.

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Let the sun shine in: It’s time to end the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law

Photo via Good Free Photos.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s long past time to close a gaping loophole in the Massachusetts public records law: an exemption that allows the Legislature to conduct much of its business in secret. State agencies as well as cities and towns are required to turn over all manner of documents when members of the press and the public ask them to do so. Our elected lawmakers, though, operate under the cover of darkness.

With legislative business wrapping up during the next few weeks, it’s too late to expect anything to happen this year. But Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said he expects bills aimed at rolling back at least part of the exemption to be filed next January. Unfortunately, he also expects those bills to die the same quick death that similar proposals have in previous years.

“The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” Ambrogi said in an email. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, added he was “fairly certain there is no appetite” on Beacon Hill for any serious effort at reform.

Spokespersons for the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, declined to comment.

What prompted this column was a tweet. Two weeks ago, WGBH News published the annual New England Muzzle Awards, which spotlight outrages against the First Amendment from across the region. Anthony Amore, a security expert who was the 2018 Republican candidate for secretary of state, posted on Twitter: “Somehow the Massachusetts Legislature and Robert DeLeo escaped notice despite the most glaring muzzle of them all, exempting themselves from public records requests.”

 

Sadly, the exemption Amore was complaining about is hardly a shocker given the sorry state of open government in Massachusetts. According to a 2018 survey by the nonprofit investigative news project MuckRock, Massachusetts is just one of four states that do not subject their legislatures to public records laws. The others: Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

“In our state’s constitution, it says that the Legislature should be ‘at all times accountable to’ the people,” Mary Connaughton of the Pioneer Institute told MuckRock. “How can they be accountable if they are hiding behind closed doors or shielding their records from the people?”

MuckRock also pointed out that the four outliers are merely following the lead of Congress, which is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act. But that’s hardly an excuse. Let’s not forget that, in 2015, the Center for Public Integrity awarded Massachusetts an “F” for its miserable record of failing to provide public access to information.

The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker did approve an upgrade to the public records law in 2016. But though some progress was made in terms of fees and enforcement provisions, the loopholes remain. Indeed, not only is the Legislature exempt, but so is the judiciary. And a string of governors, including Baker, have claimed that they and their immediate staff also need not comply.

As Boston Globe investigative reporter Todd Wallack noted on Twitter earlier this week: “Massachusetts remains the only state where the courts, Legislature, and governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt from public records laws.”

 

Ambrogi said that, during negotiations over the 2016 bill, it was made clear to reform advocates that their efforts would be derailed if they targeted the legislative and gubernatorial exemptions. The bill did create a special legislators-only commission to study further changes — but that effort, according to Ambrogi, has barely gotten off the ground.

In testimony before the commission nearly two years ago, Ambrogi said, a coalition of advocates called for removing the exemption for the governor and for modifying the exemptions for the Legislature and the courts. He emphasized that the advocates have not asked that the legislative exemption be repealed in its entirety. Rather, he said, “we proposed subjecting certain legislative records to the public records law, such as financial reports, bills and resolutions, journals, certain internal memoranda, internal manuals and policies, meeting minutes, and more.”

In a recent point-counterpoint feature in The Boston Globe, Lawrence Friedman, a professor at the New England School of Law, defended the legislative exemption. “It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Yet 46 state legislatures somehow manage to conduct business without such secrecy provisions. As Friedman’s sparring partner, Justin Silverman, argued, “These types of records are used by community watchdogs, journalists, and concerned citizens throughout the country to keep their legislators accountable.” Silverman added that with the COVID-19 pandemic reducing access to government officials, being able to obtain records is more important than ever.

If state agencies, city councils, school committees and select boards can comply with the law, then so, too, can our legislators — and our governor and our court system as well. The law already contains a number of common-sense exceptions for such matters as protecting the secrecy of contract negotiations and, when warranted, the privacy of government employees.

There are a number of clichés you could invoke here — sunshine is the best disinfectant, the government works for us, the public’s business should be conducted in public, and the like. The bottom line, though, is that democratic self-government is impossible if our elected officials are shielded from having to tell us what they are saying and doing on our behalf.

The moment has come to bring this outrage to an end.

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Why the Globe’s pullback on the Kraft video is a mistake

The Boston Globe has dropped out of the legal battle for the Robert Kraft sex video, according to Deadspin. In a statement, the Globe said it no longer had any interest in obtaining the video since Florida authorities had backed off their original claim that human trafficking was involved. The statement said in part:

Authorities have now said the charges against Robert Kraft are not part of a human trafficking case. While we still have an interest in video from outside the spa, we’ve decided to focus our energy on the famously weak public records laws of Massachusetts.

Here’s the problem. Florida’s public records law is well-known for its all-encompassing nature, and that’s good for open government and a free press. Though it’s true that no one needs to see the video outside the criminal justice system, any chipping away of free press rights could have unanticipated negative effects somewhere down the road.

Bad move. Fortunately, about 20 other news organizations continue to seek the video.

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Efforts to strengthen the state’s public-records law fall apart

Several years ago the Massachusetts Legislature strengthened the state’s public-records law — but it is still among the weakest in the country. Now a commission aimed at reforming the law still further has disbanded without producing any recommendations, according to Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe.

The law currently applies only to the state’s executive agencies as well as to records kept by cities and towns. The Legislature, the courts and the governor’s office are all exempt.

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Frederick Clay’s ordeal underscores the hazards of excessive police secrecy

By Jeffrey J. Pyle

For the past several years, police departments in Massachusetts have been routinely denying the public access to “incident reports,” the written narratives of police responses to alleged crimes. Law enforcement agencies used to disclose these reports as a matter of course, sometimes redacting sensitive information. But now, every week, I and other media lawyers at my firm hear from reporters who are being denied basic information about such things as car accidents and drug arrests. The police withhold this information despite the strong presumption in our new, strengthened Public Records Act that all government documents must be made open for public inspection unless a specific exemption makes them confidential.

The damage this excessive secrecy poses to local journalism is well reported, but it’s not only the public’s right to know that can suffer. In some cases, the refusal to release incident reports can threaten the criminal justice system itself, potentially keeping innocent people behind bars and allowing dangerous criminals to remain free in the community. This problem is illustrated by the case of Frederick Clay, who was freed from prison this week after serving 38 years for a crime he did not commit.

Around 4 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 16, 1979, a taxicab pulled up to the Archdale Housing Project in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. Three young men exited the cab and then pulled the cab driver, Jeffrey Boyajian, out of the car and onto the ground. Witnesses claimed that two of the assailants were around 6 feet tall, and the other was shorter, about 5 feet 8 inches. All three were wearing dark clothing, possibly including black leather jackets. The men searched through Boyajian’s pockets and beat him as he cried, “Take what you want, but let me live.” After stepping away from Boyajian, the shorter man took out a handgun with his left hand and shot Boyajian five times. The attackers fled on foot.

The police subjected two of the witnesses of the morning’s events to hypnosis to try to help them identify a suspect — a practice that would soon (thankfully) be ruled unlawful. One of these witnesses didn’t see the attack at all — he just thought he’d seen the trio get into Boyajian’s cab earlier that night. The second, a young man with an intellectual disability, saw the attack from a second-story window. Neither witness was sure he could identify anyone before hypnosis, but after it — and after other procedures that would today be deemed too suggestive — both picked out Frederick Clay, age 16.

Clay insisted he was asleep in his room at a foster home on the night of the crime, and his foster mother corroborated his alibi at trial. Clay was also right-handed, not left-handed like the shooter. But the police figured they had their suspect. That’s why they failed to follow up on indications that two other Archdale residents — a left-handed 16-year-old who was 5 feet 8 inches and his much taller brother — may have been the real culprits. On Aug. 19, 1981, a jury convicted Clay of first degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

After years of fruitless appeals and post-conviction motions, Clay’s case came to the attention of attorneys Lisa Kavanaugh and Jeffrey Harris. Kavanaugh learned of the other  suspect and his possible links to the crime, so she sent public records requests to the Boston Police for incident reports of his arrests around the time of the shooting. She was hoping to get mugshots of the suspect, details of his physical appearance, and other evidence showing that he matched the descriptions of the shooter, as well as information about his propensity to engage in robberies like the one that claimed Boyajian’s life.

The initial response of the Boston Police was a flat “no.” In a May 2015 letter, they told Kavanaugh that her request for the report of a 1985 arrest for assault and battery would be denied because she knew the names of the “parties involved” (she’d mentioned them in the requests to help the police identify the reports). and therefore their “privacy” could not be protected through redaction. Also, the police said, the report contained “investigatory material” (even though the investigation was long over) and “arrest information” that is “protected from disclosure” under the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law.

These are the same justifications police departments are now using to deny access to police reports to the media, and they are wrong. As I’ve explained elsewhere, neither the “investigatory” exemption to the public records law nor the CORI statute permit the withholding of entire incident reports. Nonetheless, the Massachusetts State Police recently argued to the supervisor of records for the secretary of state’s office that it does not have an obligation even to try to redact police reports — it can instead withhold them in their entirety whenever they want.  (There’s a reason the State Police won the Investigative Reporters & Editors 2015 “Golden Padlock Award,” a national recognition given to the most secretive government agency in the country.)

Kavanaugh didn’t take no for an answer. She asked me to intercede on her behalf with counsel for the Boston Police, and after much back and forth, including a threat of a lawsuit, the police agreed to produce reports for a number of incidents involving the other suspect from the 1980s — while still insisting on redacting his name (as if Kavanaugh didn’t already know it). Those reports led to other reports, and ultimately to a section of Kavanaugh’s and Harris’ masterful 75-page motion for a new trial that addressed the similarity of the other suspect’s appearance to descriptions of the Boyajian attacker and showed his propensity to commit similar crimes.

The Suffolk County DA’s office did its own investigation in response to Clay’s motion, and this past Tuesday — just one week before Clay was to be released on parole — the office assented to his motion and decided not to re-prosecute the case. The DA’s office did so in part because it agreed that the lead on the other suspect should have been pursued. In an emotional hearing in courtroom 906, Judge Christine Roach granted Clay’s motion, ordered his shackles removed, and declared him a free man — after serving 38 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

The incident reports in Clay’s case played only a small part in his release, but they corroborated an important alternative theory of who may have committed a heinous murder. The Boston Police should be commended for reversing their initial determination and releasing the records. But the problem remains: Absent judicial or legislative intervention, police departments will continue to deny access to incident reports for no good reason, regardless of whether they may shed light on an unsolved case, reveal important trends in law enforcement, or possibly free an innocent person. For the sake of the criminal justice system and the public’s right to know, that practice must end — and soon.

Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner in the Media and First Amendment Law group at Prince Lobel Tye, LLP, in Boston.

Open government in Mass. moves to closer to reality

The following is a press release from the ACLU of Massachusetts.

BOSTON—In a pair of unanimous, bipartisan votes, the state House of Representatives and Senate today passed the first major reform of Massachusetts public records law in four decades, sending it to Governor Charlie Baker, who has 10 days to sign, veto, or let it become law without his signature. If signed into law by Governor Baker, the legislation would address widely criticized weaknesses in Massachusetts public records law, which make it hard for citizens to get information about how their government functions.

“This is a great day for open government,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We thank the House and the Senate for making public records reform a priority and for getting the job done. We also call on Governor Baker to do the right thing and sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.”

The bill would:

  • Set clear limits on how much money government agencies can charge for public records;
  • Set reasonable time frames for responses to public records requests;
  • Allow municipalities to request additional time for compliance and the ability to charge higher fees to cover reasonable costs;
  • Strengthen enforcement of the law by giving courts the ability to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public records.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance—a coalition of open-government groups—praised the House and its leadership for making transparency a significant legislative priority. The coalition urged Governor Charlie Baker to sign the legislation without delay and usher in a new era of openness in Massachusetts state government.

“A strong public records law is critical to democracy and our ability as citizens to hold government accountable,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “With today’s vote, the House and the Senate made a significant commitment to transparency and freedom of information, improving open government, and moving our state a huge step forward from near last in the nation. This reform is long overdue and we hope the Governor will sign it without delay.”

In November, the Center for Public Integrity released a report that gave the Commonwealth an “F” grade on public access to government information for the second time in a row. Dozens of organizations have advocated for comprehensive public records law reform, arguing that the law is among the weakest in the country and needs updating for the digital age. State lawmakers made their last substantive amendment to the law in 1973.

“This bill represents a significant step forward for transparency in Massachusetts,” said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “It will do a lot to improve access to public records. We hope and expect Governor Baker will prove himself to be a transparency-minded Governor by signing it into law.”

“Massachusetts residents deserve a stronger public records law, and this bill offers many improvements. We look forward to the governor signing it into law and providing more opportunity to hold government officials accountable,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

The pending legislation advanced earlier in the week when a conference committee of six legislators reconciled earlier versions passed by the House and Senate. The bill passed by the House and Senate today includes provisions designed to reduce the cost of obtaining public records and ensure timely responses to information requests. In addition, by allowing courts to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public information, the bill would bring Massachusetts into line with 47 other states. The new law would not make such fee awards mandatory, but would establish a presumption in favor of covering requesters’ legal costs when courts find the law has been violated. The bill also includes safety-valve mechanisms to enable municipalities to get extensions on compliance deadlines and to receive reasonable compensation when dealing with particularly complex, time-consuming requests.

The full bill, An Act to improve public records (now H.4333), can be found here: https://malegislature.gov/Document/Bill/189/House/H4333.pdf.