Category Archives: First Amendment

Veteran Boston Investigative Reporter Detained in Russia

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Non-profits Date:

Joe Bergantino, executive director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and a long-time Boston television reporter, was detained in Russia Thursday while conducting a training session for fellowBergantino journalists, according to a release from the New England First Amendment Center.

Bergantino and Randy Covington of the University of South Carolina were leading a workshop with Russian journalists when authorities interrupted the session and took the two men away, the release states, citing Beth Daley, a reporter for NECIR who has spoken with Bergantino.

Daley said the men were accused of “teaching an educational workshop illegally because they were using the wrong visas,” according to the release. The men were then taken to a Russian court and ordered to halt the workshop and leave the country.

Bergantino, a former reporter for WBZ-TV and ABC News, co-founded the non-profit New England Center for Investigative Reporting in 2009.

The Practice Book Rule That Connecticut Judges Rarely Obey

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Transparency/FOI Date:

The arrest affidavit detailing the criminal case against Southington teenager Eric Morelli, who unwittingly caused a fatal fire by tossing firecrackers at a friend’s bedroom window, was ordered sealed three different times in the last month and half, until a Superior Court judge lifted the secrecy order late last week after acknowledging there was no good reason to keep the document under wraps.

This happens too osealedfileften, despite a legal mandate that favors openness in the courts, and clear rules establishing the hurdles that must be cleared and the process that must be followed when judges take what should be the extraordinary step of shutting off public access.

So as a public service, The Scoop would like to publicly remind the state’s judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys of their obligations under the Connecticut Practice Book when seeking to seal arrest warrants and other court documents.

Section 42-49A of the Practice Book begins: “Except as otherwise provided by law, there shall be a presumption that documents filed with the court shall be available to the public.” That presumption is echoed in the commentary of the section, which summarizes the findings of various court cases that make up the established and non-discretionary law of the state. “The public and press enjoy a right of access to attend trials in criminal cases and to access documents filed in connection with such cases,” the Practice Book notes. “This right is well settled in the common law and has been held to be implicit in the first amendment rights protecting the freedom of speech [and] of the press.”

That right, of course, is not absolute – as indicated by the phrase “Except as otherwise provided by law” – and there are various reasons why at least portions of a court document may legally be sealed, such as to protect witnesses or preserve an ongoing criminal investigation that would truly be jeopardized if certain details became publicly known.

But the Practice Book recognizes that is a momentous step and mandates that judges work to minimize the impact on the public’s right to know. As such, a sealing order can be entered “only if the judicial authority concludes that such order is necessary to preserve an interest which is determined to override the public’s interest in viewing such material. The judicial authority shall first consider reasonable alternatives to any such order and any such order shall be no broader than necessary to protect such overriding interest.”

And the Practice Book requires judges to pay more than lip service to that principle by spelling out exactly what they’re doing and why. In sealing a document, “the judicial authority shall articulate the overriding interest being protected and shall specify its findings underlying such order and the duration of such order.” In addition, “the judicial authority shall order that a transcript of its decision be included in the file or prepare a memorandum setting forth the reasons for its order.”

There are no transcripts or memoranda in Eric Morelli’s file and veteran criminal court reporters will tell you that in practice, there is little resembling the formality and gravity envisioned by the Practice Book rules.

In the Morelli case, the initial seal was requested by the prosecutor in what sometimes seems like an automatic action in higher-profile cases. Such requests are rarely rejected by judges. The last extension to the seal order was requested by Morelli’s defense attorney, who said he feared pre-trial publicity could poison a jury pool and that details in the warrant might be embarrassing to those involved.

Defense attorneys are duty-bound to promote their clients’ interests, but seasoned lawyers certainly know those are almost never valid reasons for keeping an arrest warrant secret. Nevertheless, some judges apply an inappropriately low level of scrutiny to such requests. And as in the Morelli case, they often are overturned only after intervention by a newspaper lawyer.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be. So in this, the 223rd year of the Bill of Rights, I offer a modest proposal that the state’s criminal bar and judiciary give Practice Book Section 42-49A a fresh read and recommit to the transparency that has been a hallmark of a reputable judicial branch for centuries.

Sedensky Formally Drops Appeal on Newtown 911 Tapes

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III Wednesday formally abandoned his argument that state law gave him the authority to withhold recordings of 911 calls made during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, ending a nearly yearlong battle that highlighted tensions between transparency and privacy.

The Freedom of Information Commission had ordered the tapes released, and they were made public a week ago after a judge ruled he would not keep them secret pending an appeal by Sedensky of the commission’s ruling. Although Sedensky could have pursued the legal arguments even after the tapes were released, he dropped the appeal Wednesday, submitting a one-page form to the court declaring that he was unilaterally withdrawing the suit.

After the Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request for tapes of the 911 calls, Sedensky ordered Newtown police not to release them. Although such tapes are routinely provided, Sedensky argued to the Freedom of Information Commission that the tapes were legally exempt from disclosure because their release would harm a prospective law-enforcement action and because they contained confidential evidence of child abuse and were the equivalent of signed witness statements.

The FOI Commission unanimously rejected those arguments and Sedensky appealed to Superior Court, asking Judge Eliot D. Prescott to stay enforcement of the commission’s order to release the tapes while the appeal was pending. Prescott turned him down, declaring that parts of Sedensky’s argument “bordered on the frivolous” and amounted to a claim by the prosecutor that the tapes are exempt from disclosure “because ‘I say so.’ ”

The tapes became a raw battleground in the emotional aftermath of the mass shooting, with some family members of those killed urging that the recordings never be made public and some transparency advocates saying prolonged efforts to keep them secret had merely fed conspiracy theorists and exacerbated the families’ anxiety over their release.

Prescott wrote that media attention following release of the tapes would probably be “a searing reminder of the horror and pain of that awful day.” But he said access to the tapes would also allow the public to evaluate the response by police.

“Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials,” he wrote.

The tapes revealed the terror inside the school in the moments after the shooting began and the steely resolve of several staff members as they alerted police. Officers arrived quickly, although five minutes passed before the first entered the building. Sedensky said that with initial reports of multiple shooters, the actions of the earliest responders was appropriate.

In Connecticut Schools, Strange Law Fosters Strange Secrecy

by Categorized: Education, Employment, First Amendment, Government, Non-profits, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The folks who run the state university and college system have decided to reward top performers by taking more than half a million dollars in taxpayer funds and distributing it as merit raises to some or all of 279 eligible managers and administrators.

And as my colleague Kathy Megan reported, education officials are declining, for now at least, to tell the public which of the public’s employees have been awarded additional chunks of the public’s money. In fact, they say, it would violate state law to do so.

That assertion has not been tested by the Freedom of Information Commission or the courts. topsecretBut it is the latest strange outcome of a strange series of laws that have kept taxpayers in the dark about teacher evaluations for nearly 30 years.

It began, somewhat fittingly, in 1984, with the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law was pitched, in the words of a later court case, as a way to “prevent parents from ‘teacher shopping’ in public schools by looking at evaluations and then demanding that their children be placed with one specific teacher.”

Remember before 1984, when hordes of parents would crowd into Main Offices across the state, poring over every 2nd Grade teachers’ evals before demanding that their child’s schedule be customized accordingly?

Me neither.

Parents, of course, have never needed to scour performance reviews to know who the great teachers are in their schools. But even if tamping down on teacher-shopping were the true intent of the law, let’s dig a little deeper into the statutory language. The law protects “records of teacher performance and evaluation.” But the legislature then added this bit of linguistic gymnastics: “For the purposes of this section, ‘teacher’ includes each certified professional employee below the rank of superintendent.”

This, presumably, was intended to stem the epidemic of parents engaging in principal-shopping and librarian-shopping and assistant-superintendent-shopping, as all of their performance evaluations were placed off-limits as well.

The bottom line of that strangely expansive language is that in a state with more than 51,000 certified public-school educators, the people of Connecticut are entitled to review the performance of exactly 166 of them.

The 1984 law covered only K-12 schools. But that didn’t last.

Five years later, professors in the state’s higher education system decided they’d like the same sort of confidentiality enjoyed by their elementary and high school colleagues. So a nearly identically worded statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

It is unlikely that law was passed to prevent students from “professor-shopping” and trying to secure a spot with the best teachers, since that is exactly what students do when registering for classes in college.

In the current controversy, the state will ultimately reveal which employees received merit raises and in what amounts; at worst, that information will be deducible once new paychecks – which are public records – start going out.

But if you were curious, for example, about what any particular employee did to earn, say, the maximum merit increase, then sorry – it’s the official policy of the state of Connecticut that taxpayers have no business asking.

More Frustration at Privacy/Transparency Task Force

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

The old adage that watching laws being made is like watching sausage being made was on display Wednesday during a 2½-hour meeting of the state’s Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know, at which frustrated members found themselves struggling with parliamentary bureaucracy and entrenched disagreements.

Half-way through the meeting, after a lengthy and complicated series of motions and amendments, Quinnipiac University law professor William Dunlap tried to suggest a way to move toward a vote on a proposal by state Victims Advocate Garvin Ambrose.

“Once we dispose of the Storey amendment, then Ms. Mozdzer-Gil’s amendment is entirely in order, because it’s an amendment to your original motion, as amended to conform with Sen. Fasano’s proposal,” he said.

But by then, Ambrose had given up.

“I have a solution,” he said. “I’m going to take the entire issue off the table and just withdraw my motion completely so we can start fresh, because this is getting beyond ridiculous at this point.”

But it wasn’t quite so easy. Instead, the panel spent another two minutes discussing whether Ambrose could in fact unilaterally withdraw his motion or whether the full task force had to vote on whether or not the full task force could stop considering the issue.

The task force, which will make recommendations to the legislature, was created during the last legislative session, following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and fears that records related to victims and witnesses would be released publicly. The same legislation that created the task force also temporarily amended the state’s Freedom of Information Act to exclude from mandatory disclosure “the identity of minor witnesses” in records created by police during criminal investigations.

State Sen. Leonard Fasano, a member of the task force, said at an earlier meeting that that language was added at the request of Bridgeport lawmakers in response to the 1999 murder of Leroy “B.J.” Brown, an 8-year-old city boy who witnessed a shooting and was killed before he could testify.

The boy’s name came out as part of the criminal trial, not as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, and the recent change in the law would have no impact on a similar scenario. But it has become something of a line in the sand between privacy advocates and transparency advocates on the task force.

Transparency advocates say existing law already allows police to withhold the names of witnesses of any age who might face intimidation or threats. Privacy advocates say minor witnesses and accusers deserve special protection and a presumption that their identities should be confidential, just as juvenile defendants are afforded special protections. During Wednesday’s meeting, those points were made over and over.

As the gathering neared the one hour and 45 minute mark, co-chairman Don DeCesare’s patience was wearing thin, as illustrated in the video below, from CT-N. DeCesare said the group was “bunkered in” and seemingly unable to move forward.

Forty-five minutes later, after a discussion of whether or not they had to take a vote on whether to take a vote, the deeply divided panel did in fact call the roll on a proposal to restrict access to the identify of witnesses under age 13 – but to make that information releasable once the witnesses turn 18.

The vote: Seven in favor. Seven opposed.

At Typically Genial FOI/Privacy Task Force, a Rare Burst of Frustration

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Technology, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The 17-member Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know is typically a cordial bunch, despite having strong voices at polar opposites on the issues. Garvin G. Ambrose, the state’s victim advocate, for example, evaluates victim privacy and media rights through a completely different lens than, say, James H. Smith, a former newspaper editor and now executive director of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. And Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey sits right next to Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, leading to frequent side-by-side disagreements, but also to occasional friendly banter.

But despite the normally civil tone, the task force, created in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, “can be a pressure cooker,” Smith said. And that below-the-surface tension made a rare and dramatic appearance during a marathon hearing Wednesday, when a frustrated DebraLee Hovey, a task force member and state representative from Newtown, laid into a transparency advocate who suggested that civil laws might already address the sort of harmful behavior members of the committee were looking to curtail.

Rosanna Cavanagh, a lawyer and executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told task force members that relatives of the Newtown victims had seemed to indicate through their attorney that they were primarily concerned about graphic details of the crime being misused by those on the fringe who were intent on causing pain to the families. She said those actions could run afoul of laws already on the books that punish the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

That earned a sharp rebuke from Hovey, who assailed Cavanagh’s perspective – and lawyers in general. You can view the exchange below, and watch the entire hearing on CT-N.com, the website of the Connecticut Network.

The task force was established by the legislature to “consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.” Those recommendations are due Jan. 1.

Prosecutors Say Order to Release 911 Tapes from Newtown Could Aid Criminals

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

State prosecutors and transparency advocates will square off next week as the state Freedom of Information Commission considers a proposed order to release tapes of 911 calls made during the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

In advance of the Sept. 25 hearing, Danbury States Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III has filed a brief saying the proposed order misinterprets state law and, if upheld, could be a boon to criminals trying to figure out what evidence investigators have collected.

Sedensky argues that the tapes are protected from disclosure by laws related to investigations of child abuse, and by exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Information Act covering records to be used in a future law-enforcement action. Kathleen K. Ross, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Commission, rejected those arguments during a hearing in June.

The full commission typically upholds the decisions of its hearing officers, but Sedensky will have an opportunity next Wednesday to try to persuade them to reject Ross’s proposed order. Either way, the matter may not be settled for a while. Whoever loses next Wednesday can appeal the commission’s order to Superior Court.

Our full story on Sedensky’s legal brief is here. And the full document can be read below.

Download (PDF, 1.31MB)

FOI Lawyer Chastises Newtown, State Prosecutors over 911 Calls

by Categorized: First Amendment, Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

As we reported in this morning’s paper, a hearing officer for the state’s Freedom of Information Commission has issued a preliminary ruling finding that Newtown police illegally withheld publicNPD Badge access to 911 calls made from inside Sandy Hook Elementary School during the Dec. 14 attack.

The hearing officer, Kathleen K. Ross, chastised Newtown for failing to evaluate whether the records were exempt from disclosure, instead deferring to state prosecutors who instructed the town not to release the tapes.

At a commission hearing in June, nearly six months after the Associated Press sought access to the tapes, Newtown and state officials argued that the recordings should not be released, citing a variety of exemptions, including a claim that releasing the tapes would prejudice a prospective law-enforcement action. Ross rejected all of those assertions, setting up a Sept. 25 hearing at which the full commission will decide whether to adopt Ross’s report.

Lawyers for the state Division of Criminal Justice will be back at the commission’s offices, making the case for why the tapes should not be released. And even if the commission upholds the hearing officer’s report – as they usually do – the state could appeal that decision to Superior Court, a step that would add months if not years to the resolution of the matter.

The full hearing officer’s report appears below.

Download (PDF, 515KB)

You Want Those Public Records? That’ll Be $16 Million Please.

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Media, Non-profits, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

When reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought access to public records about tax-lien sales that were costing residents of Fulton County millions of dollars, officials said the newspaper could have the data – for a fee.

That fee? $16.2 million.

It was the latest in a string of roadblocks county officials had erected in hopes of avoiding scrutiny of the costly deals, and it persisted until the state attorney general threatened to join the newspaper in suing the county pols.

That snubbing of Georgia’s freedom-of-information laws earned Fulton County a finalist spot – but not the grand prize – in the inaugural “Golden Padlock” award from the journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors. The partly tongue-in-cheek award is given in recognition of “unrelenting commitment to undermining the public’s right to know.”

As bad as the county tax commissioner’s actions were deemed to be, IRE gave the top prize to the U.S. Border Patrol for what it called stonewalling by the federal agency in response to requests for information about deadly shootings by agents.  “The U.S. Border Patrol’s resounding silence on fatal shootings involving its agents epitomizes the kind of intransigence for which this award was created,” IRE president David Cay Johnston said in a press release.

Three other agencies earned finalist spots:

    • JobsOhio, a non-profit economic development agency that replaced the Ohio Department of Development, and which was made exempt from most public-records laws despite being established with public money and having access to a huge pool of assets from the state’s control of liquor profits.
    • New Jersey Transit, which responded to a request for the agency’s hurricane preparedness plan by providing a document entirely blacked out except for the title.
    • The Centers for Disease Control, for its slow response to requests for information on Lyme Disease, including one case in which a requester was made to wait more than five years for records.

The reporters’ group also inducted the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder into its “Hall of Shame” for what it called the “Orwellian practice of monitoring journalists’ phone records in pursuit of whistleblowers.”

In the Newtown Clerk’s Office, a Dishonorable End to Six Months of Lawlessness

by Categorized: Ethics, First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

If you were a government official, how far would you go to push back against a law you disagreed with?

Would you openly defy the law?

Would you be willing to violate your oath of office?

Would you go so far as to badger those who favored enforcement of the law?

Until today, those questions earned a shameful “yes” in the Newtown clerk’s office, where officials for six months illegally withheld access to death certificates after deciding their personal sense of right and wrong trumped the statutory demands of their office.

This morning, the clerks finally relented, turning over dozens of heartbreaking photocopies bearing witness to the sad duty of doctors in the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office to apply, over and over, a clinical description to the violence that stole so many innocent lives.

As I write this, a reporter is driving back from Newtown with the documents. When they arrive, they’ll be somberly analyzed for anything that might improve our understanding of that awful day – though it’s not likely the sparse documents will do much to peel back the mystery. We will wince at the now-familiar names, and think of the parents that we have come to know, but don’t really know. We’ll do our best to avoid flashes of the terror inside that school. And then the documents will be filed, along with hundreds or thousands of other sheets of paper amassed in our investigation and coverage of this obviously important, internationally significant story. [Update: Courant editors tell me that, following a review of the death certificates, no story will be written based on their content.]

That is what we will do with the records. And the town should have given them to us as soon as we asked last December. Continue reading