The state’s regional garbage agency won a victory this week as the state’s Freedom of Information Commission blocked the release of emails by former House Speaker Thomas D. Ritter on the grounds that they were covered by attorney-client privilege.
The FOI battle, which has already lasted for nearly two years, could now last years longer as it heads to Superior Court in an appeal.
An attorney said the clash could have potentially broader implications at the state Capitol if communications between lawyer-lobbyists and their clients are deemed secret. Lobbyists who are not lawyers would not be able to have their emails and other communications fall under the umbrella of attorney-client privilege because they are not attorneys.
“It certainly opens the door to that,’’ said Hartford attorney Michael C. Harrington, who was seeking Ritter’s emails. “This will allow any lobbyist, who happens to have a law degree, to create a veil of secrecy under the auspices of the privilege. Lobbying is not legal advice.’’
Others, though, believe the ruling will have no long-term implications because the emails were read “in camera” or in secret by FOI commissioners who determined that they were related to legal issues. In addition, FOI covers government actions and does not apply to communications between private entities that would involve other lobbyists and their clients.
The battle involves a bitter, ongoing clash between Harrington and the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the regional garbage and recycling behemoth that serves about 70 cities and towns. Harrington is the attorney for a consulting firm headed by Matthew J. Hennessy, a longtime Hartford Democratic political operative who is suing CRRA in an anti-trust case because he did not receive a three-year consulting contract worth more than $250,000. Ritter’s firm had the contract for years before Hennessy became a bidder.
CRRA has already spent more than $100,000 in attempting to block the FOI requests over the past two years, according to testimony.
As part of the overall battle, Harrington is seeking information from the FOI Commission that could be used in the ongoing civil lawsuit against the garbage agency. Harrington, a partner with the well-known firm of Murtha Cullina, is seeking monetary and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and triple damages under the state’s anti-trust laws. Neither Ritter nor his law firm, Brown Rudnick, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Murtha Cullina also has a long-running lobbying operation at the state Capitol, which is separate from the firm’s legal side. The dust-up with Brown Rudnick has been a topic of discussion at the Capitol and has led to some uncomfortable moments for those who are not directly involved in the legal side.
Harrington has already received nearly 2,000 pages of documents in the case that were not deemed to cover legal matters, but the latest battle revolved around more than 1,000 emails involving Ritter, others and the CRRA staff or board members for more than four years. The commission ruled in favor of CRRA, saying the emails by Ritter and others were covered by the attorney-client privilege and did not need to be disclosed.
CRRA, for example, would not want any of its legal emails exposed to the Metropolitan District Commission in any future lawsuits as the two sides have been battling on a regular basis.
But Harrington is appealing the ruling, saying that the emails could not be covered by attorney-client privilege because Ritter was acting as a lobbyist, not as an attorney.
“You have to be providing legal advice in order to be subject to the privilege,’’ Harrington said in an interview. “We could be in for a long ride, but it’s one that I’m willing to pursue. I’m not going to give up at this point. I see this as one stop on a long journey to have the Supreme Court address the issue’’ on the emails.
He added, “I do think CRRA will fight me the whole way.”
Ritter has declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to speak about the ongoing case. CRRA supporters say that Harrington has never seen the emails and therefore could not know if they involve Ritter’s legal or lobbying activities.
Paul Nonnemacher, a spokesman for CRRA, said, “The hearing officer reviewed thousands and thousands of pages of documents. She ruled, with the exception of one invoice [about billing records], that we were right. That sums it up. We said they were privileged, and we were found to be correct.’’
Nonnemacher added, “They thought one thing. We thought another. After all that work, she agreed that they were privileged.’’
The commission also ruled that certain billing records by Ritter’s law firm must be released to Harrington as public records because they “do not contain any description of any litigation strategy.”
In a sign of the bitter, behind-the-scenes battle that has been raging since the FOI case was originally launched in November 2011, CRRA charged that Harrington’s FOI request was “filed frivolously, without reasonable grounds and solely for the purpose of harassing CRRA,” according to the hearing officer’s report.
But the commission ruled that the FOI request was not frivolous and that Harrington would not be fined under the law.