Category Archives: Law Enforcement

Yet Another Effort to Keep the Public in the Dark about the Public’s Business

by Categorized: Government, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Transparency/FOI Date:

It is extraordinarily well-settled law in Connecticut that personnel records related to the official conduct of our civil servants are public records that must – with rare and well-delineated exceptions – be released to members of the public, who employ those civil servants.

And yet, decades after the state Supreme Court resolved any serious question about the obligation oftopsecret public agencies, the dockets of the Freedom of Information Commission are routinely clogged with cases in which one town or another is trying – through ignorance or willful law-breaking – to keep personnel files secret.

Usually, the arguments are worn and tired, but occasionally an agency will come up with a novel, if misplaced, justification for skirting the law. That’s the case with a complaint brought against the Ansonia Police Department, which refuses to release personnel records for one of its officer. Continue reading

Secrecy-Obsessed Bureaucrats Battle for Coveted “Golden Padlock Award”

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

When the Boston Globe sought records related to crashes involving Massachusetts State Police cars, the agency said it would be happy to comply – for a fee of $62,200. The agency was also willing to release a log of public-records requests – for $42,750. And the Staties told a reporter for the Bay State Examiner that he would have to pay a $710.50 “non-refundable research fee” just to find out how much the agency would ultimately charge for copies of internal-affairs documents.golden_padlock

For “habitually going to extraordinary lengths to thwart public records requests, protect law enforcement officers and public officials who violate the law and block efforts to scrutinize how the department performs its duties,” the Massachusetts State Police was named one of four finalists for the Golden Padlock Award, a slightly tongue-in-cheek honor bestowed annually by the journalism organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

“It normally takes months or longer to respond to news media FOI requests. Requests for basic documents routinely produce refusals, large portions of blacked out documents or demands for tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified fees,” IRE gushed in announcing the department’s nomination. The news organization also quoted a 2013 story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that declared: “The Massachusetts State Police is a habitual offender – verging on a career criminal – when it comes to breaking a state law intended to ensure government is accountable to the people it serves.”

This is the third year IRE has led the hunt for “the most secretive government agency or individual in the United States.” Last year, the award was shared by the U.S. Navy FOI office, which not only stymied efforts by a reporter to obtain information on a shooting spree at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., but also accidentally sent the reporter an internal memo outlining the plan to keep records secret; and the governors of Oklahoma and Missouri, who went to extraordinary lengths to keep the public in the dark about problems with prison executions.

Joining the Massachusetts State Police as finalists this year are the Colorado Judicial Branch, which keeps records of its spending and disciplinary actions under wraps; The Texas Department of Public Safety, which tried to block inquiries into the validity of its border-security program; and the U.S. Department of Defense, which has stonewalled efforts to learn more about the massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan by an Army staff sergeant.

“There is a unique brand of courage displayed by public officials who deny, delay and circumvent the public’s right to know with a straight-faced sense of duty,” said Robert Cribb, a Toronto Star reporter and chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock committee. “They carry forward a rich tradition of undermining open records laws with ingenuity, commitment and condescension deserving of our acknowledgement.”

The winner will be announced at IRE’s annual conference this weekend.

Charity Fraud Charges: Four Down, Hundreds to Go

by Categorized: Consumer Affairs, Ethics, Government, Law Enforcement, Non-profits Date:

The fraud case brought against four spectacularly inefficient cancer charities is welcome news to watchdogs who have studied the fleecing of generous donors by Donateunscrupulous nonprofits. But it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Americans donate hundreds of billions of dollars each year to more than 1.5  million tax-exempt organizations. The great majority are legitimate operations. But some – hundreds for sure – are little more than conduits that funnel money to professional fundraising firms while devoting pennies on the dollar to charitable purposes.

And there is often little the government can do about it. Continue reading

No Shortage of Detractors for Racial Profiling Findings

by Categorized: Data, Law Enforcement, Public Safety, Race/Ethnicity Date:

Racial and ethnic disparities in policing has long been an uneasy topic in Connecticut and across the country. And that was reflected in reaction to a Sunday story in the Courant reporting that black and Hispanic motorists pulled over for traffic violations were more likely to receive a ticket than were white motorists pulled over for the same offense.

Many commenters and email writers were quick to challenge the findings,  advancing a slew of reasons why the data or the analysis was flawed, and confidently assuring that there was a legitimate reason for any disparities in policing. Some raised legitimate questions. Others misunderstood the analysis.

The Courant performed a similar analysis in 2012 – and received a similarly visceral reaction from many readers.  So as we did three years ago, here’s an elucidation on a few of the topics raised by readers.

The most common misconception was that the reported disparities simply indicate that black and Hispanic drivers violate traffic laws at higher rates than white motorists. “Could minority drivers commit more motor vehicle violations than non-minority drivers?” one poster asked. “No, this can’t be true. that would be racist.” Continue reading

A Transparency Advocate’s Legislative Wish List

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

I recently obtained an internal email in which a lawyer for a public agency laid out the agency’s strategy for responding to a request for records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Step One was identifying the records the agency was willing to release.

Step Two was identifying the records the agency had no intention of releasing.

And then Step Three, almost as an afterthought, was determining whether there was actually an exception under the Freedom of Information Act that would provide a legal basis for keeping the withheld documents secret from the public.

“As we discussed we can always withhold a document even if there is no exception,” the lawyer wrote, with the understanding that the agency might have to concoct a justification for the illegal act if the requester was savvy enough to pursue an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission.

It wasn’t the first such email I had been made privy to, and it reminded me of the need for vigilance in Freedom of Information matters and the importance of constantly reminding the public servants who work for us that they do, in fact, work for us. They’re paid by us, they’re sworn to serve us. And with rare exceptions, all of the paperwork and data they produce and collect while on our payroll belongs to us, and should be provided to us without a fight.

So as the Legislature gets down to business this week, here’s one transparency advocate’s wish list, for any lawmakers willing to champion the not-so-radical concept that the people’s business really is the people’s business. Continue reading

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.

Veterans Charity Loses $830,000 to Theft – and Tens of Millions to Costly Fundraising

by Categorized: Law Enforcement, Non-profits Date:

My colleague Kelly Glista reports that a bookkeeper for the National Veterans Services Fund has been accused of embezzling more than $830,000 from the Darien-based nonprofit.

But that’s pennies compared to the millions the charity loses year after year in lopsided fundraising contracts.NVSFlogo

As I’ve written before, charity watchdogs consider the National Veterans Services Fund among the worst nonprofits in the nation, consistently receiving pennies on the dollar for the millions raised from patriotic Americans.

When I first wrote about the National Veterans Services Fund for a 2005 story on veterans charities, fundraising costs at the organization were eating up nearly 98 cents of every dollar raised – meaning every time a generous donor gave $500, all but $11 of that donation was spent on printing and mailing costs or pocketed by professional fundraisers. That made it the least efficient of the 286 veterans charities analyzed by the Courant.

I checked in again on the charity a year ago, after Charity Navigator, a respected rating agency, put the National Veterans Services Fund at the top of its list of “consistently low rated charities” – earning zero-star ratings for ten straight years. By then, the charity’s deal with fundraisers allowed the solicitors to keep as much as 84 cents of every dollar raised – an improvement, but still five times what the average veterans charity spends on fundraising.

Overall, from 2000 to 2012, Americans who were solicited by phone and mail donated $72 million to the National Veterans Services Fund, according to its IRS filings. But $56 million of that donated money came off the top to cover the cost of all that soliciting. Even among veterans charities that use expensive professional fundraisers, the Darien charity’s fundraising percentage is more than twice that of other nonprofits. That gap alone amounts to $30 million in donated money since 2000 that wasn’t spent on charity.

Cynthia Tanner could face 20 years in prison if convicted of diverting $830,000 from the charity. Meanwhile, the National Veterans Services Fund spends about that much on fundraising every 40 days. Phil Kraft, the organization’s president, treasurer and executive director, has a ready answer to concerns about the charity’s huge fundraising costs, saying those unfavorable contracts with professional fundraisers are the only way he can stay in business.

His response a year ago was nearly identical to what he told me in 2005: “A small percentage of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”

Is Jailed CCSU Poet a Good Professor? That’s None of Your Business.

by Categorized: Education, Law Enforcement, Transparency/FOI Date:

My colleague Kathy Megan reports this morning that the Board of Regents for the Connecticut State University system will reconsider Tuesday’s decision to grant full professorship to Ravi Shankar – a promotion that occurred while Shankar was behind bars at the Hartford Correctional Center.

In seeking to distance Shankar’s legal troubles from his classroom duties, regents spokesman Michael Kozlowski said he has heard that Shankar, the school’s poet in residence, “has tremendous student ratings, they like him very much, and that his academic record, at least as far as I know, is quite good.”

We’ll have to take his word for it.

As I’ve noted before, there is a strange lack of transparency surrounding the assessment of public university professors in Connecticut, with all records of their performance and evaluation off limits to the taxpayers who employ them. But that cloak confidentialstampof secrecy is yet more stark for faculty employed by the State University System, where the entire contents of personnel files are closed to any outside scrutiny.

Those aren’t my words; that’s the actual language of the faculty union contract, which was given the force of law years ago by the legislature. “The entire contents of personnel files,” the contract reads, “shall be considered private and may not be opened to any outside scrutiny except when ordered by a court of law.”

Those personnel files contain a faculty member’s application for employment, payroll records, disciplinary actions, job-related correspondence with university administrators and “all other relevant personnel actions.”

That unmatched secrecy would typically run afoul of the state’s Freedom of Information laws, which recognize that public accountability is part of the deal when the public pays your salary. But under Connecticut law, when the legislature approves a collective-bargaining agreement, the provisions of the contract supersede any conflicting state law.

So in 1997, the union asked for wholesale secrecy, negotiators for the state agreed, and legislators let it become law.

“One the biggest potential threats to public accountability is a state law (Gen. Statutes section 5-278) that is being used to allow public employee contracts ratified by the legislature to trump FOI statutes when it comes to releasing information in employee personnel files,” the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information wrote in their Agenda for Open Government last year. “The executive branch should refuse to negotiate, and the legislature should refuse to accept, such back-door assaults on accountability in the state’s union contracts.”

The current state-university contract expires next year and negotiations will begin anew. We’ll see if there are voices in state government willing to stand up for transparency. In the meantime, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not Professor Ravi Shankar’s academic record is in fact “quite good.”

FBI Releases Heavily Redacted Report on Adam Lanza

by Categorized: Law Enforcement, Transparency/FOI Date:

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Courant’s Dave Altimari, the FBI has released 111 heavily redacted pages detailing its investigation into Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza. As Altimari reported, another 64 pages were withheld in their entirety.

The government claimed generally that releasing the redacted information would constitute an invasion of personal privacy, reveal the identify of confidential witnesses or interfere with law-enforcement proceedings. The partially redacted pages can be viewed below.