FOI Update: From ‘It’s a Personnel Matter’ to 154 Pages of Records

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

A week and a half ago in this space, we wrote about a Danbury News-Times story revealing that a long-time prosecutor in the Danbury courthouse had been placed on paid leave after a complaint – at least the fourth going back 20 years – that he was secretly photographing or videotaping women in the office.  In the article, several current and former supervisors declined to provide information about Senior Assistant State’s Attorney David M. Holzbach, each explaining their silence with a version of a common refrain: that it was a “personnel matter.”

Officials, of course, are under no mandate to talk about personnel issues, but the responses promoted the widely mistaken notion that all information about personnel matters involving public employees is somehow legally confidential and off-limits. That prompted The Scoop to issue a reminder that under Connecticut law, such information is almost always a matter of public record. As the state Supreme Court wrote: “When a person accepts public employment, he or she becomes a servant of and accountable to the public.”

To underscore that, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records related to alleged misconduct by Holzbach. To its credit, ,and in keeping with its obligations under the law, the Chief State’s Attorney’s office promptly provided access to nearly every document in Holzbach’s personnel file; 154 pages in all, from certificates for completing specialized courses, to appreciative letters from the families of crime victims, to warnings over past episodes where he was accused of secretly recording women.

The documents include information on his latest troubles: a suspension imposed pending an investigation based on “allegations that you secretly recorded and/or videotaped members of the defense bar and/or public while in court on April 27, 2012” and a notice to Holzbach from Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane advising that he is “considering the imposition of serious discipline against you in connection with misconduct which took place in the Danbury courthouse on or about April 27, 2012.”

Holzbach had avoided that serious disciplinary action in connection with three prior complaints from women, in 1992, 2002 and 2006, the records show.He received an unwritten warning in 1992, no disciplinary action in 2002 and a written warning in 2006, after then-Danbury State’s Attorney Walter Flanagan concluded that Holzbach “acted in an unprofessional manner when you photographed a female employee while she was working in the office without her knowledge.” The written reprimand states that Holzbach admitted the conduct and agreed not to do it again.

The records also include Holzbach’s annual review from 2006, in which he received satisfactory ratings in every category, with no mention of the reprimand.

Some may be surprised that Holzbach’s performance reviews are available for all to see, along with his salary history and training certificates and, yes, the written complaints from women he is accused of photographing. But Connecticut law recognizes that public employees are just that: employees of the public. There are, of course, competing interests, and not every word of every document is covered by Connecticut’s broad Freedom of Information Act. But for most classes of  public employees  (teachers and school administrators are a curious exception), you’re allowed to know what your workers are doing on the job.

For those interested in the contents of Holzbach’s personnel file, the records can be viewed below. And the next time you hear a public official suggest that they can’t provide information about a personnel matter, let me know, and I’ll set them straight.

 

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5 thoughts on “FOI Update: From ‘It’s a Personnel Matter’ to 154 Pages of Records

  1. Good Info

    People get stonewalled all the time by government employees when it comes to FOIA. I’ve had secretaries say I’m not allowed to get copies and can only look at documents. I’ve had secretaries tell me that they will not provide documents unless I show them my ID. While I love the scope of the FOIA here in CT, I wish there were stiffer penalties for government entities who don’t comply. Right now, the most effective weapon against government secrecy is the press. Good work! And a question–Is it legal to openly video and audiotape government employees in government buildings?

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