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 access 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.
Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act turns 40 years old today, and in honor of that milestone, let’s write about a transparency success story – the tale of an agency that received a request for public documents and actually produced the records with no delays, no phony roadblocks, and even no cost.
This is not a fictionalized fantasy; it really happened, and it involved the City of Hartford Corporation Counsel, which, under prior regimes, was not always so agreeable when it came to giving, to the public, records that belong to the public.
First, some background: On Nov. 14, 2012 a Hartford man named Lamonte Brown was walking with his dog Boomer on South Marshall Street when police officers investigating a noise complaint confronted him and, he says, beat him, shot him with Tasers, and impounded his dog, which was later euthanized.
Those events led to a lawsuit against the officers in federal court and then, in August, to a formal settlement – with Brown agreeing to drop the suit and city officials agreeing to write Brown a check for $7,500. The settlement was later reported by the Associated Press, in a story that included this curious line: “Brown’s lawyer, John Q. Gale, said he couldn’t discuss the case because of a confidentiality agreement.”
Such confidentiality agreements are common in lawsuit settlements. They are also controversial, with a continuing debate over whether the potential benefit of that secrecy (the ability to settle more cases without the fear of inviting more litigation) outweighs the potential harm (keeping the public in the dark about, say, especially dangerous doctors or dangerous products or serial rapists).
But when it comes to public agencies – at least in Connecticut – that debate is mostly muted. Our Freedom of Information Commission – an independent agency that is the jewel of the law turning 40 today – has consistently held that when government officials settle lawsuits, they can’t keep taxpayers in the dark about the terms of the settlement – unless there are special circumstances that compel a a judge to take the extraordinary step of ordering the settlement sealed.
Which brings us back to Lamonte Brown’s case. Continue reading
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 of 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
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.
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.
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 fellow 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 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 often, 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.
I got an email the other day from a former political press aide from another state, expressing befuddlement over exactly what laws former Gov. John Rowland is accused of breaking in his dealings with former Congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley.
“I still don’t get what Rowland’s crimes were,” the former aide wrote. “Is the crime some type of illegal campaign assistance? Is it a lack of proper income reporting on the part of Rowland? Is it some type of non-transparency of the assistance given that violates some law?”
Good questions. Federal criminal law can be complicated, so here’s a primer on the government’s legal theory and the specific accusations lodged in Rowland’s indictment.
There are seven counts in the indictment, but they all flow from the requirement that candidates for federal office must accurately report where campaign money is coming from, and where it’s going. And if the general factual allegations are true – that Rowland performed paid work for Wilson-Foley’s campaign but was paid with funds secretly provided through a third party, and that neither the money in nor the money out was reported on campaign-finance forms – then that would appear to be a violation of the reporting requirements. In brief: the government alleges that money controlled by Lisa Wilson-Foley or her husband Brian Foley essentially was given to the campaign and then passed on to Rowland, and neither of those transactions was listed on the forms.
So it’s evident why Wilson-Foley, the candidate, would be in trouble in a situation like that, and she has in fact already pleaded guilty. But does her illegal activity attach to Rowland?The government says it does, and in Rowland’s indictment, there are both direct and indirect allegations.
Within the seven criminal counts, there are four different allegations:
1. Conspiracy. The government alleges that Rowland was the one who proposed the arrangement with Wilson-Foley (and did so specifically to avoid the mandatory public reporting of campaign spending information), and then participated in developing the details of the sham arrangement. So this is a typical conspiracy charge: Rowland wasn’t required to file a campaign-finance report and didn’t file a false campaign-finance report, but is accused of conspiring to violate the reporting laws.
2. Falsification of Records in a Federal Investigation. Rowland is charged with two counts of falsifying records, based on two allegedly sham consulting contracts (one for Wilson-Foley and a proposal two years earlier involving another Congressional candidate, Mark Greenberg). The government’s theory is that those contracts were drafted “in order to conceal from the [Federal Election Commission] and the United States Department of Justice” that the payments were actually for campaign work, and were made “with the intent to impede, obstruct, and influence the investigation and proper administration” of federal campaign-finance laws. That, they say, makes the creation and execution of those contracts illegal under federal law – and, therefore, a criminal act by Rowland – even if no “federal investigation” was underway when they were drafted (and, in the case of the Foley contract, even if the bulk of the document was created not by Rowland, but by a lawyer working for Brian Foley’s company).
3. Causing False Statements (two counts). These counts relate to two separate campaign-finance filings in which Wilson-Foley did not record payments to Rowland. So why is that Rowland’s legal problem? Under the government’s theory, it’s part and parcel of the conspiracy. By proposing and participating in the scheme, they say he’s criminally liable for “causing” the inaccurate FEC filings to be made, even if someone else was responsible for preparing and filing those reports.
4. Illegal Campaign Contributions (two counts). As above, these are decidedly indirect charges, based on the legal theory that the funds used to pay Rowland were, as a matter of law, funds donated by the Foleys to the campaign. Since those donations weren’t reported, the government considers them illegal campaign contributions. And since the government accuses Rowland of proposing and participating in a conspiracy by which money would be provided for the campaign’s use in such a way that it wouldn’t be reported, they say that makes him legally liable for the allegedly illegal donations. So the government isn’t claiming Rowland made or accepted illegal contributions, but rather that he’s criminally liable for allegedly illegal contributions made by the Foleys, based on his involvement in the alleged conspiracy.
Rowland’s attorney, Reid Weingarten, has proclaimed that his client will be “fully vindicated.” Federal officials, meanwhile, appear to be betting on significant jail time for a public official who has seen prison bars before. Absent a plea bargain – and a trial seems likely at this point – it will be up to a jury to declare which side has the law on their side.
The inevitable dissolution of the battered Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation came a step closer Thursday with Judge Carl Schuman’s order barring the foundation from engaging in any official acts while he considers the fate of the once-revered scholarship fund.
On April 7, barring objection – and no objection has been registered so far – Schuman may formally eliminate the organization Walter “Doc” Hurley dreamed up four decades ago to help needy high school students reach their college dreams. The foundation – which held more than $1 million in assets seven years ago – is now penniless, and Hurley’s daughter, Muriel, is facing a civil suit brought by the attorney general accusing her of looting the charity.
The collapse of the Hurley foundation is on stark display in a series of affidavits filed by nine Hurley scholarship winners who didn’t receive the money they were promised. As part of the Courant’s investigation of the foundation, we tracked down more than a dozen winners who were shortchanged, and lawyers for the state then soon followed up.
Utsarga Bhattarai was awarded a $2,000 scholarship when he graduated from West Hartford’s Hall High School in 2008. But he said the money never came. “On multiple occasions, up and through my junior year of college, I contacted the Foundation through multiple telephone calls and e-mails, but never was contacted by the Foundation,” he wrote.
That sentiment is repeated over and over. “I sent multiple e-mails and made multiple telephone calls to the Foundation and left messages, but never received e-mails back or any return telephone calls,” wrote Alyssa Cusano, who received $500 of the $2,000 she was promised.
Brittany Cavaliere left phone and e-mail messages after her aid stopped. So did Jermaine Thomas and Amanda Trothier. And several other students. But they said they either received no response, or were assured that the scholarship money was on its way. But it never arrived.
The affidavits are included in the dissolution lawsuit merely to bolster the state’s case that the Hurley Foundation was no longer operating as a charitable organization and should be shut down. There is no means through that process to make the students whole.
State officials aren’t foreclosing the possibility of recovering assets that could be distributed to past scholarship winners. But the foundation’s bank accounts are empty, and finding any seizable assets is proving to be a difficult feat.
The students’ affidavits are below:
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.