Dear Bureaucrats: Please Stop Suggesting “Personnel Matters” are Confidential

by Categorized: Employment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

The Danbury News-Times has a curious story this morning reporting that a local prosecutor is in hot water for transgressions that include, according to the paper, “using a camera concealed in a pen to take pictures of a female attorney’s legs and feet.” If true, that sort of behavior is, naturally, frowned upon. And the prosecutor, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney David M. Holzbach, has been on placed on paid leave for the last several months, according to reporter John Pirro.

Pirro dug deeper into Holzbach’s 24 years as a prosecutor and unearthed other allegations involving his interactions with women, dating back as far as 1992. So Pirro contacted three of Holzbach’s current and former bosses – all of whom were familiar with allegations against the prosecutor – to find out what’s been going on. And all three had the same stock response.

Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky and Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane “called Holzbach’s suspension ‘a personnel matter,’ ” according to the paper, and they didn’t say anything else. Former Danbury State’s Attorney Walter Flanagan, who retired in 2007, acknowledged he received complaints about Holzbach, but “declined to go into detail about them, citing personnel issues.”

It may be the most commonly used no-comment excuse. And it’s completely at odds with state law.

So let’s take this opportunity to remind public servants, citizens and the media: “personnel matters” in Connecticut are, with limited exceptions, public matters.  As taxpayers, the public has the right – written in law and repeatedly confirmed by the courts – to know how their employees in government are performing their jobs.

As the state Supreme Court wrote nearly 20 years ago: “When a person accepts public employment, he or she becomes a servant of and accountable to the public.” Those words appeared in the seminal case Perkins v. Freedom of Information Commission, which everyone concerned with public transparency in Connecticut should read.

The Perkins decision established a two-prong test for determining whether a personnel record is exempt from mandatory disclosure as an invasion of personal privacy. Under the law, information in a public employee’s personnel file may be withheld “only when the information sought by a request does not pertain to legitimate matters of public concern and is highly offensive to a reasonable person.” A subsequent decision clarified that both prongs must be met to satisfy the exemption.

That’s a very high bar – a whole lot higher than simply proclaiming an issue is entirely off-limits as a “personnel matter.”

Not every document about every employee is publicly available. But there are undoubtedly portions of Holzbach’s personnel file that must by law be released. So we’re asking to take a look.

Below is a Freedom of Information Act request that we’ve sent out today to Holzbach’s supervisor. We’ll let you know when we get a response.

Download (DOC, 220KB)

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19 thoughts on “Dear Bureaucrats: Please Stop Suggesting “Personnel Matters” are Confidential

  1. Observer

    I agree 100 percent with your statements, these are public employees, I am their boss and I pay the salary. But time and time again we are treated like morons when questions are raised. Good luck with your inquiries.

  2. Swampyankee55

    “It may be the most commonly used no-comment excuse. And it’s completely at odds with state law.”

    Just to clarify, the FOIA has nothing to do with getting a comment from an employee’s current and, especially, former bosses. It has only to do with records, for which have you have made a request, and concerning which you may expect some answer within four business days.

    1. Matthew Kauffman Post author

      Swampyankee: You’re absolutely right, and I often counsel colleagues here at the Courant that FOI cannot be used, for example, to ask a question of government officials. My point was that officials frequently suggest that they are prohibited from providing information about a personnel matter; that such matters are confidential and private by law, when in fact they generally are not. So yes, I didn’t mean to imply that declining to comment is at odds with the law; I meant only that the suggestion that an official can not legally disclose information about a personnel matter is at odds with the law.

  3. Paul Bass

    Great piece! Good luck with your FOI; hope the correspondence back and forth ends up in your non-public Tribune personnel file 🙂

    That dodge makes me nuts — I get it from public agencies all the time. Thanks for fighting for us.

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