Archive for the ‘Public Records’ Category

E-mails show Beverly, Mass. school official pushed to keep her husband employed

June 17, 2010

By Cate Lecuyer, reporter, The Salem News, Salem, Mass.

 A string of emails obtained by The Salem News through the state public records law revealed the lengths taken by Beverly School Finance Director Joan Liporto to keep her husband employed as the school maintenance director.

 The emails show Liporto tried to a block a move to merge city and school maintenance departments, told her boss she would quit if her husband, Tim, wasn’t hired to the new maintenance director position, and helped create a description for the job he was applying for.

 For a year, the Salem News heard whispers Liporto was trying to keep her husband, a plumber by trade, in the $72,921 salary position as the director of buildings and grounds, a position some said he wasn’t qualified for.

With nobody willing to speak on the record, the accusations were hearsay. However, through an unexpected connection we heard of an email that city Public Services Commissioner Mike Collins sent to the city solicitor’s office, requesting advice on how to respond to an email from Liporto about the buildings and grounds position. After a state public records request to the city solicitor, the Salem News had the email in a matter of days.

 The emotionally charged tone made it clear there was more electronic correspondence leading up to Liporto’s message, in which she tells Collins she’s “perplexed” he refused to support hiring her husband.

 The Salem News sent Liporto a state public records request for all emails she sent and received pertaining to the maintenance job and discovered a back-and-forth that clearly showed her advocating for her husband, and pressuring others to keep her husband employed.

 Liporto says she was advocating not for her husband, but against consolidating in general, because the current system worked so well. The fact that consolidating would abolish her husband’s interim position had no bearing on her decisions, she said.

Public records are the public’s property

June 15, 2010

By David Solomon, executive editor, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.

 New Hampshire has allowed public officials far too much discretion in the disposition of their documents and public papers upon leaving office.

 As the state Senate debates a bill requiring governors and congressmen to turn over a selection of their papers to the state archives, we learn that no governor for the past quarter century has left a record of memos, correspondence, calendars or other notes to posterity.

As far as we know, boxes full of material that would illuminate history and inform future generations have been destroyed, lost or kept private.

U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is a good example. Gregg has acknowledged he did not save documents and other materials from the time he served as governor between 1989 and 1993.

More recently, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, now a candidate for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary, has been pressed by political opponents for her calendar and e-mails, particularly any related to the investigation of Financial Resources Management.

The ill-fated investment firm is now under investigation for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme that cost investors as much as $80 million.

But none of those records can be found because apparently it is state policy to delete the e-mail account of an employee upon departure.

 If that is indeed the standard policy, or worse, there is none, state officials need to develop one that ensures that important documents don’t just disappear because a state official chooses to leave office.

Action is needed on two fronts: Legislation now pending that would require governors and congressmen to turn “selected” papers over to the state’s archive needs to be amended so that all papers are turned over; and protections need to be put in place to prevent the mass destruction of e-mails and other documents in digital format. 

As for e-mails and other documents on state-owned computers, a policy should be developed and enforced to allow such material to be stored and cataloged for future access upon departure of high-level state employees.

There is no compelling argument for practices that destroy the public record rather than preserve it. Space is certainly not an issue. In the digital age, the entire contents of Ayotte’s hard drive would fit on a storage device the size of your thumb.

Journalists, historians, political operatives – or anyone else, for that matter – should be able to request and receive e-mail records, just as they were provided to The Telegraph when it made a recent request for e-mails from the Nashua mayor’s office.

None of this is to suggest that Ayotte did anything wrong, or that Gregg had something to hide. The attorney general’s office was following a procedure that has apparently been in place for years, while Gregg was certainly not the only governor to leave no records for the state archive.

But both cases served to highlight the urgent need for legislation and policy changes to protect the “source material” of history.

New law blocks Conn. inmates from accessing guard files

June 8, 2010

By James H. Smith, executive editor, The Bristol Press and New Britain Herald

Both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation by unanimous acclimation and Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed it into law last week preventing inmates from reading the personnel records of prison guards. 

It is a wholly unnecessary law.

The state Department of Correction, Connecticut’s most secretive agency, did not want inmates having access to guards’ personnel files. Department spokesmen pitched it as inmates after “personal” files. They waned to protect the home addresses of guards. Connecticut state law already protects the home addresses of virtually every state public employee — a no doubt unconstitutional statute, given a recent ruling by a federal judge in Florida.

But Connecticut public officials, when it comes to transparency and open government, too often opt for hiding information.

The state Freedom of Information Commission had lobbied against this most recent piece of legislation as both redundant and against the spirit of open government, but not one politician listened.

Meanwhile in Florida, state and Tallahassee authorities agreed to pay $60,000 in damages and legal fees to Robert Brayshaw and his lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. Brayshaw, who was arrested and briefly jailed for posting a local police officer’s home address on a cop-rating website, said last week his ordeal was “completely crazy.”

“Just because I posted it, I got arrested. It wasn’t like it was the Pentagon Papers,” Brayshaw, a 35-year-old Tallahassee man, told Wired.com. Now unemployed, he said it has been difficult to get a job because of his 2008 arrest. He spent nearly three hours in jail and was prosecuted under a 1972 statute making it unlawful to publish personally identifying information of a police officer.

Brayshaw’s comments came after the deadline passed for Florida to appeal a federal judge’s decision that declared the First Amendment trumped Florida’s law protecting the privacy of police officers.

U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak in Tallahassee ruled the First Amendment does not protect “true threats, fighting words, incitements to imminent lawless action, and classes of lewd and obscene speech.” But publishing an officer’s phone number and address, he said, “is not in itself a threat or serious expression of an intent to commit an unlawful act of violence . . . The release of personal information, even with the intent to intimidate, is not per se a true threat . . . Rather, disclosing and publishing information obtained elsewhere is precisely the kind of speech that the First Amendment protects.”

 Brayshaw said the officer “basically had her information listed publicly in the phone book.” He had a beef with the officer regarding a trespassing flap in which he was not charged.

Out of the shadows, Mass. quasi-public agencies and the need for budget transparency

May 26, 2010

By Deirdre Cummings, legislative director tax and budget policy, MASSPIRG, Boston, Mass.

 Those who know Massachusetts government are accustomed to the fact that many of the Commonwealth’s public functions are performed by “quasi-public agencies” such as independent boards or commissions that are funded by their own fees, combined in some cases with general funds; and governed by their own independent bodies that are not directly answerable to the legislature or governor. You’d think that there would be an official tally of how many such agencies exist, and how big their budgets are. You might also think that, given their exemption from normal channels of public oversight, quasi-publics would need to be more transparent than other parts of government.

 You’d be wrong. Our quasi-public agencies fail to disclose basic spending information online despite the fact that their combined budgets represent 33 percent of additional government activity that is not included in the budget or covered by the normal oversight process. A new report by MASSPIRG Education Fund, Out of the Shadows, Massachusetts Quasi-Public Agencies and the Need for Budget Transparency, provides the first combined tally of the budgets of quasi-public agencies and their level of budget transparency.

 Massachusetts’ 42 quasi-public agencies operate largely under the budget radar despite performing vital government functions, some which have been on the front pages recently.

 Increasingly, the public, including lawmakers, local officials and the media expect that all government expenditures will be posted online and easily accessible through a Google-like search function. The good news is that the House recently adopted language as part of its fiscal year 2011 budget that includes transparency for quasi-publics as part of broader spending disclosure and accountability reform that includes spending on tax credits. Attention will now move to the Senate.

The new report calls for a number of reforms, including comprehensive disclosure, creation of an oversight board for quasi publics, and the requirement that contracting at quasi publics to be done through a transparent process like Comm-Pass, the state online procurement system, to name just a few. For more, see executive summary of report.

State senator wants Rhode Island to join 49 other states in making votes instantly available

May 24, 2010

By State Sen. Lou Raptakis (D-Coventry, R.I.)

People have a right to know how their elected officials are voting and when that information is kept from people, it is a sure sign of a broken system.  As a member of the Rhode Island legislature for 18 years, I’ve seen numerous efforts to modernize the workings of the General Assembly.  The latest attempt to force our legislature to join the electronic age is a bill I have introduced that would provide citizens with timely access to the voting records of the Rhode Island House and Senate — both the floor votes and committee votes.

Rhode Island is lagging behind the rest of the country by failing to make legislative information easily available.  Every other state makes voting records available online as a basic recognition that in the 21st century citizens deserve timely access to this information.  We have the technology to do what other states are doing. Now we need the commitment from legislators to let their votes be reported to their constituents in a timely way.  This is the key to promoting accountable and responsible government.          

We have seen what happens when decisions are made in the middle of the night, when hundreds of bills are being considered in just two days.  It leaves people feeling frustrated and disconnected from their government.  This is our opportunity to fix that and let the citizens of Rhode Island know that we are serious about doing the public business the right way.

Among the organizations speaking out in favor of the legislation were Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and Operation Clean Government.  These are groups that have been promoting good government for decades in Rhode Island. Along with new citizen action groups, members of the public, and the media, we are working to promote this legislation to make government accessible and accountable. It is crucial that we as a legislative body finally amend the processes by which we make information public, so voters can obtain information easily and in a realistic time frame.

Quest for “Marty,” pizza dinner add up to big legal bills for Southborough, Mass.

May 24, 2010

By Richard Lodge, editor, MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass.

What started as a quest by Southborough town officials to identify an anonymous online critic named “Marty,” evolved into a secret probe of eight town employees who met after work at a pizza restaurant last September.

Early in May, Southborough selectmen publicly exonerated eight present and former employees, including Town Administrator Jean Kitchen, Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale, former Town Planner Vera Kolias and Public Works superintendent Karen Galligan. The eight were investigated after selectmen received a complaint from the former assistant town clerk about comments allegedly made about then-interim Police Chief Jane Moran at an after-work pizza dinner at Uno in Westborough last September. Moran was subsequently named permanent police chief in November.

The complaint reportedly involved comments made “in the presence of non-town employees who the subject of the comment has to deal with and also in the presence of a person who was competing for a position.”

The complaint to selectmen spawned the probe, which entailed the town hiring outside lawyers. The probe, in turn, prompted several of the town employees under investigation to hire their own lawyers.

The employees first learned they were under investigation when they were called to an executive session with selectmen on Oct. 22. 2009. At that closed-door meeting, interim Chief Moran accused the employees of trying to undermine her, according to several people at the meeting.

On May 10, Hingham attorney James Lampke, who was hired by the town to look into what was discussed at the gathering at Uno, released the report of his investigation, exonerating the eight employees. Days earlier, after a four-hour closed-door meeting, selectmen announced the eight employees had been cleared after the probe.

The MetroWest Daily News has filed a public records request for minutes of that executive session since, under the Open Meeting Law, it would appear the reason to keep the records of the discussion secret has passed.  The request for minutes was hand-delivered on Friday, May 14, and the town has ten business days to respond.

The Daily News also filed a public records request with Southborough selectmen seeking a breakdown of legal expenses for the town relating to the probe. Assistant Town Manager Vanessa Hale told the newspaper it could see redacted copies of the legal bills, funneled through Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano, but the charge would be more than $200.

“Town policy dictates that the charge for a records request is based upon the hourly rate made by the lowest paid employee capable of completing the requested task,” Hale told the Daily News. “Since no one other than Aldo (Cipriano, the town counsel) can redact the bills, the charge you’re seeing is what he charges per hour for his work.”

Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office said this week an attorney will be assigned to look into the newspaper’s complaint about the cost cited for copies of the legal bills.

The newspaper’s request is for legal bills from Cipriano and two outside lawyers, Barry Bachrach and Lampke, who investigated the pizza dinner discussions and an earlier investigation to uncover the identity of “Marty,” an online poster who Southborough selectmen said wrote inaccurate comments on a local blog regarding the hiring of Moran as police chief.

 In April, the Daily News reviewed redacted copies of Bachrach’s legal bills for the unsuccessful search for “Marty’s” identity, which showed the attorney billed the town more than $3,000 for the work. Copies of the bills were obtained by Southborough resident Al Hamilton, who made his own public records request for bills related to the “Marty” investigation.

The Daily News also obtained a copy from a Personnel Board member of an invoice from Lampke. That bill showed charges to the town, just for the month of February, of $2,315 for “personnel issues.” But until copies of all legal bills are made available to the newspaper, it’s impossible to report the total cost of outside legal work to Southborough taxpayers.

Patrick administration drags its feet over Gillette Stadium footbridge e-mails

May 19, 2010

By Glen Johnson, reporter, Boston, Mass. bureau, Associated Press 

When we learned that Gov. Deval Patrick, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and the Massachusetts Democratic Party received maximum campaign donations from Robert and Myra Kraft as the state was considering using federal stimulus money to build a pedestrian bridge near the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, I filed a FOIA for all e-mail traffic about the project.

The most timely response was the one indicating the Department of Transportation had received it.

It wasn’t until six month later that the papers were finally delivered: a foot-high stack released to us at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday.

We were still able to make weekend deadlines with a story about how DOT engineers felt pressured from the governor’s office and the Krafts to forge ahead with the project, but the getting there wasn’t easy.

 A month after the AP’s Dec. 7 request, we asked for a status update. We were told it was a voluminous request and we might be smart to pare it back. Not wanting to do that, we told the administration we would wait. Possible release dates in February, March and April all elapsed, with various explanations about the redaction requirements.

 Finally, as the AP broached the subject of having its FOIA lawyer intervene, the administration said the material would be released Monday, May 10. When the AP followed up, it was told a department lawyer who needed to give final signoff was in India, so the documents would be released by Tuesday, May 11. That date came and went, and then, at 1 p.m. Friday, the administration said the materials would be available in an hour.

The AP obtained them, then wrote a story detailing the six-month wait and quoting Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan as denying any effort to quash negative news by releasing the materials at a traditionally slow news time heading into the weekend.

N.H. high-speed police cruiser crash details shielded by “privacy” act

May 18, 2010

By Howard Altschiller, executive editor, Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth, N.H.

A stunning report about a Seabrook, N.H. police cruiser that was traveling at more than 100 mph when it crashed in February was leaked to the Portsmouth Herald last week, but the legal battle over public access to those records carries on. 

A redacted copy of the March 19 Department of Motor Vehicles report was provided to the paper by an anonymous source after the Herald filed a Right to Know request for records pertaining to the Feb. 5 crash. The Department of Safety has so far refused to release any of the records on the grounds they’re protected by the “Driver Privacy Act.”

The Herald published the details of the report in a May 12 story, but still plans to press ahead with a hearing scheduled for next week to have the full dossier released to the public.

 A police officer and a pickup-up truck driver were injured after the cruiser blew through a red light in North Hampton at a speed topping 100 mph, the DMV report showed. The report also revealed the officer violated three state laws pertaining to emergency vehicles by failing to proceed through a red light after having slowed “as necessary for safe operation,” driving at an unreasonable speed which endangered life and property, and failing to drive the cruiser with “due regard for the safety of all persons.”

 The police cruiser was trying to pull over another vehicle traveling at more than 100 mph when the collision occurred, state investigators said.

 The Herald filed a motion for reports related to the cruiser crash with Merrimack County Superior Court on April 12, after all of the involved law enforcement agencies, including New Hampshire State Police and the state Department of Safety, refused to release any information or comment about the crash.

During a May 3 hearing on the matter in the Concord Superior Court, Senior Assistant Attorney General Mark Hodgdon said the Driver Privacy Act exempts motor vehicle records from the state’s Right to Know law.

No exception can be made “for the curious,” Hodgdon wrote in a motion filed with the court at the onset of the hearing.

Representing the Herald, attorney Benjamin King, of the Concord law firm of Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, countered that the Privacy Act is designed to protect personal information about private individuals, not “to shield possible police misconduct.”

King said the Herald will continue to litigate the case for all of the crash records, noting the likelihood that the state will deny similar requests in the future.

N.H. judge sides with newspaper in criminal annulment case

May 17, 2010

By Howard Altschiller, executive editor, Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth, N.H.

Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Diane M. Nicolosi has made an important ruling in favor of the public’s right to know and against the state’s poorly written criminal annulment law.

Her ruling is a victory for common sense and should be very helpful to a legislative committee forming to review and recommend improvements to the annulment law.

On April 22, Nicolosi dismissed a civil suit against former Rockingham County Sheriff Dan Linehan, Maj. Mark Peirce and former Portsmouth Herald reporter Karen Dandurant, filed by failed Rockingham County sheriff candidate David Lovejoy.

In the suit, Lovejoy claimed his privacy had been violated when Linehan and Peirce allegedly leaked, and when Dandurant and the Herald published an article, revealing Lovejoy had been convicted of domestic simple assault in 1989.

“The information disclosed was truthful, provided to a mainstream and reputable newspaper, and was presented in a way that was without vitriolic comment or exaggeration … The truthful dissemination of information that had once been in the public domain, in the context of a competition for public office, cannot be said to be so outrageous that it would transgress the bounds of decency,” Nicolosi wrote in her decision.

The judge further stated: “The truth is that plaintiff (Lovejoy) committed a domestic simple assault in 1989, and his conviction for this offense was subsequently annulled. The fact that a record of arrest and conviction may not now be open to the public does not make it disappear as though it never happened; nor does one’s character change on the day an annulment is granted.”

While the judge’s ruling is a great step forward, the Lovejoy case really is an exaggerated version of much larger questions the state needs to address regarding its annulment laws. Those questions include: What constitutes “disclosure and communication” of an annulled record? What types of crimes, if any, are reasonable to annul and which are far too important to the public’s right to know to ever legally hide? Should there be different standards for disclosing the annulled records of public and private figures? Nicolosi’s ruling makes clear that public figures shouldn’t be able to hide behind annulment laws, but what about business people who have committed fraud? Don’t people doing business with those convicted of fraud have a right to know they have a criminal past? That would seem relevant to us.

Finally, the whole issue becomes even more complicated in an age when public records, including records of conviction that are subsequently annulled, are forever accessible online.

These are just a few reasons why the Legislature needs to approve a committee to study the annulment law. At this point the committee has passed the House and Senate. We encourage the governor to sign the committee into law as soon as possible.

Meeting minutes show ex-New Bedford school chief planned to “sit on her butt,” collect check

May 13, 2010

By Charis Anderson, reporter, The Standard Times, New Bedford, Mass.

After almost two tumultuous years, former New Bedford School Superintendent Portia Bonner abruptly resigned her position on April 9.

The resignation came just days after a highly charged closed-door meeting of the School Committee during which Bonner locked horns with Mayor Scott W. Lang, the committee’s chairman ex officio.

The committee discussed and accepted Bonner’s resignation – and reached consensus on whom to appoint as the next superintendent – during another executive session meeting on April 9.

I had reported on the outcome of both meetings, but not in any detail about what had happened during those meetings, and in order to do so, I needed copies of the meeting minutes.

I prepared a public records request that I submitted to the mayor’s office on May 13, asking for the executive session minutes from both meetings. I argued that as Bonner’s resignation had been publicly announced, the stated need for executive session protection had ceased and the minutes should be released immediately.

Although there was some initial reluctance to make the minutes public, the School Committee did approve and release the minutes within two weeks of my request.

The minutes were revealing in two ways. First, they captured the extent and nature of Bonner’s outburst during the initial meeting: After being told by the mayor that he would not vote to extend her contract, Bonner replied that “she would sit on her butt and collect a paycheck for her last year and spend time looking for a new job,” the minutes stated.

The minutes from the second meeting were interesting for what they revealed about the manner in which the new superintendent was chosen. The mayor put forward a name, and the committee agreed with no discussion.

 I’m still reporting on new developments in this story, and having the minutes out there has been critical to my – and the community’s – understanding of how the roots of the story developed.