Author Archives: Matthew Kauffman

Did the New York Times Break Connecticut Law in Disclosing Trump’s Tax Return?

by Categorized: Business, Ethics, First Amendment, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Transparency/FOI Date:

The New York Times has a widely shared piece this morning, disclosing that Donald Trump reported a nearly $916 million loss on his income taxes in 1995 – a financial drubbing that The Times said could have allowed him to wipe out any income-tax liability for 18 years.

Partisans on both sides are engaged in typical partisan hysteria, and some are wondering on social media: Is this sort of reporting legal?

The story included copies of Trump’s state tax returns from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Most people in my profession have salivated over the thought of gaining times_trumptaxaccess to tax filings for those whose background we’re investigating. But personal tax returns naturally are confidential, and the Department of Revenue Services would promptly laugh at us if we asked to see them.

So was The Times on shaky legal ground in publishing Trump’s Connecticut Non-Resident Tax Return?

Laws are often open to interpretation, but the answer is probably not. Yes there are state laws that provide penalties for disclosing tax information; no, those laws probably don’t apply to The Times.

Section 12-15 of the Connecticut General Statutes makes it illegal to inspect or disclose “return information”  – including the sort of information The Times reported. But the law’s prohibition is limited to current and former state employees and to others who have authorized access to the returns (such as contractors hired to help process or store returns). Those with unauthorized access – including The Times – aren’t covered by the law. (Connecticut’s law is substantially similar to the federal law on tax-return privacy.)

So if a state official provided the document, that individual may have broken 12-15, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. But that law doesn’t appear to apply to The Times or its reporters. (That said, it seems unlikely the document came directly from the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services; The Times indicates that all three tax returns arrived together in an anonymous package on Sept. 23.)

But if an anonymous tipster broke the law in leaking the records, is The Times still on the hook for publishing them? Again, probably not – although lawyers for Trump have threatened legal action. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case in which a Pennsylvania radio station broadcast a recording of an illegally intercepted cell phone call between union officials during a contentious contract negotiation. The union officials sued, but the court sided with the radio station, ruling that journalists cannot be held liable for publishing illegally obtained information related to legitimate matters of public concern, so long as the journalists did not participate in illegally obtaining the information.

“Privacy of communication is an important interest. However, in this suit, privacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance,” the court wrote in Bartnicki v. Vopper. “A stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.”

The heated debate over the propriety and relevance of The Times’ story will likely go on. Just perhaps not in a court of law.

Since 1997, More the 1,000 U.S. Officers Have Been Murdered

by Categorized: Data, Law Enforcement, Public Safety, Uncategorized Date:

The policemen gunned down in Dallas Thursday night join a long and sad list of officers intentionally slain year-after-year in the line of duty. From 1997 to 2015, according to FBI statistics, 1,005 members of U.S. law enforcement members were “feloniously killed” – and a surprisingly large number died in ambushes.

Over the last two decades, officer murders peaked in 2011, when 72 were slain. Preliminary numbers for 2015 are far lower: 41.

Those numbers are a fraction of all law-enforcement deaths. Intentional killings account for about a third of the officers who die in the line of duty, with many more dying in car accidents and from job-related illnesses. The overall numbers have dropped dramatically from spikes in violence against police in the 1920s and 30s, and the 1970s.

While deadly encounters during traffic stop may seem to be the most common scenario in which officers are killed, they account for fewer than one in five slayings. Since 1997, more officers were killed in ambushes – including unprovoked attacks and cases in which officers were lured into danger – than during traffic stops. About one in 13 killings occurred while police were responding to a domestic dispute.

Firearms were used in 92 percent of all murders of police since 1997. Handguns were used most often, although rifles and shotguns were used far more often with cop killings than with homicides in the general population. In recent years, about 7 percent of firearm homicides were committed with rifles or shotguns. Among killings of police, long guns were used more than four times as often.

Connecticut State Budget, Fiscal 2017

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Government, Politics Date:

Legislators are preparing to vote on a nearly $20 billion budget for the next fiscal year – a revised spending plan that trims more than $800 million from what legislators approved 11 months ago. Here’s a breakdown of the proposed budget by department and by line-item description. Hovering over the bubbles will display each department’s total budget. Clicking on a department will show line-item spending for that agency.

FOIC Rules Teacher Rating Data is Public. Now Let’s Open Up Individual Evaluations.

by Categorized: Data, Education, Transparency/FOI Date:

Over the objections of teacher unions, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled Wednesday that there’s no reason to keep secret the fact that New Milford school officials think about three-quarters of their teachers are accomplished and one quarter are exemplary.

If that doesn’t sound like the sort of information that calls for breaking out the lawyers to keep under wraps, welcome to the strange world of teacher evaluations – the only public-employee evaluations in Connecticut that are kept confidential by law.

Thirty years ago, the legislature cut off public access to “records of teacher performance and evaluation,” swallowing the argument that without secrecy, parents would engage in “teacher shopping” by poring over personnel files and then harassing principals to pair their kids with the “good teachers.” I don’t know how silly that argument sounded three decades ago, but every time I mention it in casual conversation these days, the universal response is, “But everyone already knows who the good teachers are.”

Nevertheless, it’s been the law since 1984 that the public shalt not see a teacher’s performance review (and by “teacher,” the legislature decided that term should apply to librarians and reading specialists and assistant principals and every other certified school professional except the superintendent.)

But the Commission Wednesday permitted a tiny peek under the tent, ruling unanimously that the law protecting records of teacher performance was intended to apply to an individual, identifiable teacher’s evaluation, and not to anonymous, aggregated data for an entire district.

That is a victory for John Spatola, who was turned down when he asked the New Milford school system to release data related to the state’s far-from-perfect effort to uniformly assess the competency of the state’s teaching force. The state plan established a variety of criteria that placed teachers into one of four categories; exemplary, proficient, developing and below standard. (New Milford substituted the term “accomplished” for “proficient.)

So Spatola, a former member of the New Milford Board of Education, asked for data showing the number of local teachers who were placed in each of the four categories. New Milford officials were reluctant to release the data without some assurance that they could do so without breaking the law. The local and state teachers’ unions, meanwhile, intervened and urged the FOI Commission to keep a cloak on the numbers, saying their release would be illegal and would harm teachers.

The legal argument is built on the broad language of the statute, which cuts off public access to “any” record of teacher performance and evaluation. The unions argued that that language covered the aggregated data Spatola was seeking. The Commission disagreed, adopting a hearing officer’s finding that the law was meant to shield records related to individual teachers. “The requested records, which do not identify individual teachers or individual schools,” the hearing officer wrote, “cannot be used for ‘teacher shopping.’ ”

While Spatola hails the ruling as a triumph for transparency, it was somewhat academic; New Milford’s numbers, and those of many other school districts, had already come to light when they were entered as an exhibit in an ongoing lawsuit against the state Department of Education. But the data that came out of that case was heavily redacted, with some information missing for two-thirds of the state’s districts, and all information missing for nearly half.

Given the FOI Commission’s ruling, I’ve sent a request to the State Department of Ed for an unredacted copy of the data. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, isn’t it time for the legislature to remember that it’s the public who ultimately employs the state’s public-school teachers? And to rethink a law that prevents the public from seeing performance evaluations for some of its most important employees?

UConn-Syracuse, Minute-by-Minute

by Categorized: Data, Sports, UConn Date:

A 16-0 Syracuse run late in the third quarter added a dash of excitement, but overall, the UConn women dominated on their march to a fourth consecutive NCAA championship.

Use the scroll bar or arrows below to see how the individual players performed during the 40 minutes of play.

Charity Check: The University of Connecticut Foundation

by Categorized: Charity Check, Transparency/FOI, UConn Date:

The University of Connecticut Foundation is back in the news and back at the Capitol for the perennial tug-of-war over opening the foundation’s books. In the last two legislative sessions,
lawmakers have introduced bills that would subject the fundraising arm of the university to the Freedom of Information Act and allow the Auditors of Public Accounts to review the foundation’s finances.

Those bills went nowhere. But this year, a dramatically watered-down version of the legislation has UConnFoundationLogobeen introduced that would require the foundation to release a laundry list of documents – most of which are already public by state or federal law. Perhaps the most significant change involves the disclosure of how many disbursements the foundation makes for various categories of support, including scholarships and endowed professorships and program support – although the university already reports the total amount spent on those categories.

A second bill, for which a public hearing is scheduled tomorrow, March 18th, would require the foundation to release information on its financial support for faculty and staff (though the bill’s wording leaves it unclear whether that would require more disclosure than the university already makes). And the legislation would make public the names of people and companies donating to the foundation – unless the donor requests secrecy.  If that bill passes, it will be particularly interesting to see how the foundation implements that provision.

Click here or the chart below to download our full Charity Check report on the University of Connecticut Foundation (which will open as a Word document). And click the image at bottom to download the foundation’s most recent tax return.

Click here for full Charity Check

UConn Foundation tax form