Category Archives: Transparency/FOI

A Journalist’s New Year’s Resolution: If You See Something, Say Something

by Categorized: Ethics, Government, Media, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

In these early days of the year, when we’re all vowing to hit the gym or give up smoking or call our mothers more often, I’m hoping there’s room for one more New Year’s resolution, one that’s as easy to execute as it is to remember.

For 2014, let’s all pledge: If you see something, say something.

No, I’m not talking about speed-dialing the Department of Homeland Security to report that suspicious Burger King bag you saw on Metro-North. I’m talking about building the partnership that exists between media outlets and the communities they reach. It’s a tenuous partnership at times, but it’s more important than ever.

News outlets have always depended on sources – from average citizens to the deeply connected – and for investigative reporters, that communication is critical. So when things are amiss in your community, when institutions are failing those they serve, when greed or bias gets the better of politicians, when injustice reigns, let us know.

Last month, the Courant reported that at least 15 college students awarded aid by the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation between 2005 and 2008 had received less money than they were promised. The students did their best to harangue scholarship officials, with little success, and years passed before someone thought to alert the paper and prompt the sort of action that transparency and publicity often brings. But by the time we were on the story, it appears the Foundation’s coffers were empty. Imagine if we had known about the problems years earlier.

The Courant breaks a lot of news and we have excellent sourcing. But it could always be better. And it could hardly be easier. Have a tip? Call me at 860-241-6741 or send an email to our investigative blog, at thescoop@courant.com, or use our online tip form.

Bob Woodward of the Washington Post once asked former Vice President Al Gore how much the press and the public really knew about what went on in the Clinton White House. Gore’s reply: “One percent.”

That doesn’t serve democracy. Sunlight does.

If you see something, say something.

Santa Favors Government Transparency

by Categorized: Government, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

OpenTheGovernment.org, a pro-transparency coalition that promotes “less secrecy, more democracy,” is out with a naughty-and-nice list of politicians and government entities that have upheld or obstructed the notion that the people’s business is the people’s business.

NaughtyNiceGetting big presents under the tree this year are two members of Congress – California Republican Darrell Issa and Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings – who last March unveiled the “FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2013.”

The bill has several provisions designed to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, including a requirement that agencies process FOIA requests with a presumption of openness. “It places the burden on agencies to demonstrate why information may be withheld, instead of on the public to justify release,” the lawmakers said. The legislation would also require agencies to post frequently requested information online and would establish a central portal for requesting federal records.

And getting huge lumps of coal for 2013? No surprise: The National Security Agency, which relied on secret court rulings for its massive surveillance program.

See the entire list of winners and sinners here.

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.

Connecticut Health Exchange Gets High Marks for Transparency

by Categorized: Health, Transparency/FOI Date:

In a era of diminishing government transparency, the investigative news site Pro Publica is giving a shout-out to Connecticut and other states for their openness in providing statistics on consumer interest in health care exchanges set up as part of Obamacare.

While federal officials appear reluctant to talk numbers, several states are providing an open window on the progress of the exchanges, which are prompting lots of consumer research, but still relatively small numbers of enrollees.

In the Nutmeg State, Access Health CT, the quasi-public agency running the exchange, is publishing daily updates on its interaction with consumers. (As of Friday: 126,055 website visits, 10,997 phone calls answered, 1,979 applications processed.)

“Federal officials have proudly proclaimed the number of visitors to the healthcare.gov site,” Pro Publica Reporter Charles Ornstein reports. “But they have declined numerous opportunities to provide enrollment figures.”

By contrast, Ornstein writes, “Those interested in what transparency looks like can check the states.” In addition to Connecticut, the Pro Publica article cites transparency initiatives in Kentucky, Maryland and Washington state.

The New York Times, Accidental Gunfire, And the Value of Public Access to Death Records

by Categorized: Data, Government, Media, Transparency/FOI Date:

It certainly wasn’t their primary objective, but an intriguing Sunday story in the New York Times illustrates the value of keeping death certificates and death-certificate data available to researchers, including journalists.

The Times’ story reveals that in eight states in which reporters were able to analyze death records, most accidental shooting deaths of children were classified as something other than an accident, skewing the apparent prevalence of such deaths and in turn giving policymakers misleading data.

It’s not the result of a deliberate effort to under-report such tragedies. Instead, in states surveyed by the Times – as in Connecticut – medical examiners have a number of options for  describing the manner of an individual’s demise, including classifying a death as a homicide, suicide or accident. And in some states, any death directly caused by the actions of another, even if accidental, is classified as a homicide. Likewise, some self-inflicted deaths are classified as suicides, even if the deaths – such as those from accidental shootings – are not intentional.

In all, the Times identified more than 250 fatal shootings of children known to be accidental – the majority of which were not counted as accidents in official death records.

The same issue appears to exists in Connecticut. In 2010, for example, death-certificate data – which has been collected and analyzed by the Courant for decades – includes five individuals younger than 18 who died by gunfire. Four are known or believed to have been killed intentionally. But the fifth victim, Jamese Hudson, a 16-year-old New Haven girl, was accidentally shot in the face by a friend, police said, while the two were playing with a gun in the friend’s bedroom.

Nevertheless, Hudson’s death is listed as a “homicide” – and not included in statistics for accidental shootings.

That discrepancy has important policy implications. Most safety legislation represents a balance between inconvenience to those affected and the reduction in harm that might be realized by government-mandated behavior. But for years, lawmakers considering measures to reduce accidental shootings have engaged in that balancing act with incorrect information on one side of the scale. And groups opposing stricter gun-storage laws have cited government statistics on accidental shooting deaths – now revealed to be flawed – to argue that such fatalities are uncommon enough that they don’t justify more-intrusive laws.

That debate will continue – but it will now do so with all sides having access to more-accurate information. And it’s worth remembering that none of this would be occurring if the Times had been unable to review death records.

A public analysis of how Connecticut classifies accidental shootings would likewise be impossible without the state’s tradition of making such records available. In the past, that same data has allowed the Courant to identify deadly medical errors that hospitals failed to report to state authorities, and was a cornerstone of the paper’s recent investigation revealing scores of preventable deaths among individuals with developmental disabilities who were living in state-run or state-supervised facilities.

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)