In CT, Open Government Foes Are Winning – Hartford Courant

By Mitchell W. Pearlman

With eroded powers and under continuing attack, Connecticut’s first-of-a-kind Freedom of Information Act turns 40 on Thursday.

After being involved in the fight for government transparency and accountability since 1975, I am often asked what are the most important issues facing those working to keep the government and its information open to the public. Unfortunately, many of the most critical issues involve trying to undo damage to the law done by our politicians and courts.

It is one thing to pass a freedom of information law. It is another thing, however, to implement it, and implement it effectively. The uniqueness of Connecticut’s law was that it created an independent government commission to administer and enforce the law. For the most part, the commission has done its job well and is a highly regarded government agency.

Unfortunately, however, in 2011, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, apparently to exercise political control over the commission and other independent “watchdog” agencies, created a new level of bureaucracy over them. That bureaucracy, ironically — or perhaps cynically — is called the Office of Governmental Accountability. It has hamstrung the Freedom of Information Commission with incompetent and self-aggrandizing administrators who have made it virtually impossible for the commission to effectively deal with its enormous workload on behalf of the people of Connecticut. So, the Office of Government Accountability has made government in Connecticut less accountable.

Since 1980, five years after the Freedom of Information Act was established, the legislature and the courts have led a counterattack against the commission’s broad interpretation of that law in furtherance of public disclosure. Together these branches of government have created, and continue to create, numerous exemptions and loopholes in the law. Among other things, they have permitted government agencies to virtually hide behind a veil of secrecy and created laws governing situations in which the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs some perceived interest in personal privacy.

These exceptions and loopholes have become so absurd that recently our Supreme Court ruled that the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services may withhold from a researcher the records of Amy Archer-Gilligan — the historical figure who inspired the movie and play called “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Archer-Gilligan, who was suspected of killing dozens of people at her nursing home a century ago, died in 1962. She has no family left, thus there is no privacy interest at stake. She was committed to a state facility — the Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane, now the Connecticut Valley Hospital — from 1924 to the day she died. Under federal law, medical and psychiatric records are available for historical purposes 50 years after a patient’s death. Not so in our fair state.

No one could foresee many of the current public policy issues raised by the keeping of electronic records when our freedom of information laws were first enacted in the last century. So the commission has had to figure out how to integrate this new technology into laws designed for paper records. The retention, archiving and destruction of email and text messages remain unresolved issues to this day. Just reading the many news reports about government officials using personal email servers, text messaging and cellphones provides a view of how those in power attempt to bypass our public records laws.

Of course, the new century has brought other challenges as well. Chief among these is the obsession with national security. Almost immediately after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, governments at all levels began to shut down access to information. Important public health, environmental and safety information on government websites was removed. Obviously, a more appropriate balance between legitimate security concerns and the public’s right to know has to be established.

The concept of an open and accountable government is essential in any democracy. Unfortunately, the trend over much of the past 40 years has been to close down much critical government information that had been open to public scrutiny with the passage of freedom of information laws. Unless this trend is reversed, I fear that our democracy will continue to wither, if not die.

Mitchell Pearlman is the former executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission and is a lecturer in law and journalism at the University of Connecticut. To mark the 40th anniversary of Connecticut’s freedom of information law, First Amendment litigator and educator Floyd Abrams will receive the Walter Cronkite Freedom of Information Award on 0ct. 22. For information, go to

Editorial: Keeping ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Killer’s Records Secret Is Nuts – Hartford Courant

Federal law allows public access to medical and psychiatric records 50 years after a patient’s death “for historical purposes.” But not Connecticut.

Not even when the patient is as historic a figure as the murderer who inspired the movie and theater classic “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

The state Supreme Court this week denied a researcher’s request for the records of Amy Archer-Gilligan — even though she was suspected of killing dozens at her Windsor nursing home a century ago, she died more than 50 years ago and she has no family left.

Ms. Archer-Gilligan was a patient at the Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane, now the Connecticut Valley Hospital, from 1924 until she died there in 1962. Her records are in the hands of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

This burial of information of great public interest is wrong.

Her records may aid in understanding the infamous killer. The records would illuminate how state psychiatric patients were treated in the mid-20th century — exactly the sort of light that government-transparency laws were meant to shed.

Too bad, said the court majority: State law exempts psychiatric records from disclosure.

State mental health officials had argued that disclosing Ms. Archer-Gilligan’s decades-old records “might adversely affect patients’ willingness to provide information regarding their medical history and status.” That is implausible and even ludicrous. No proof was given.

The Supreme Court ruling is, sadly for those interested in Connecticut’s past and government’s inner workings, in line with other recent reversals on pioneering 1970s open-records legislation.

A few years ago, for example, the legislature blocked research into the records of Civil War veterans treated at Connecticut Valley Hospital. The state’s mental health commissioner had argued that “records of this nature are very sensitive.” After a century? Sensitive for whom? Where’s the evidence?

A later bill allowing the release of medical records 50 years after a patient’s death was amended to black out all names, making the files useless to historians. It wasn’t taken up by the House.

Such secrecy only adds to the stigma of mental illness and keeps Connecticut in the dark about its past.

[Original Story]

OUR VIEW: Secrets and old lace – The Bristol Press

Records related to the mental hospital incarceration of a serial killer who inspired the play and 1944 movie “Arsenic and Old Lace” don’t have to be made public, the state Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Monday.

The Associated Press reported that a majority of five justices ruled that documents were exempt from disclosure requirements. The ruling reversed a trial court, which had backed the state Freedom of Information Commission; they said Amy Archer Gilligan’s privacy rights ended with her death in 1962 and invasion of privacy is not an issue.

As AP noted, the Supreme Court justices cited a “broad veil of secrecy created by the psychiatrist-patient privilege” to bar the disclosure under state law.

On the one hand, we’re happy to know that our private matters are protected from prying eyes, at least while we are alive. The court’s majority decided that “each and every one of the documents at issue — whether psychiatric, medical, dental, administrative or otherwise — must be shielded from the public, basing its decision primarily on where the documents were created, with almost no regard for their content,”  Justice Andrew J. McDonald wrote.

On the other hand, we’re concerned that this ruling may be a bar to historical research, even long after the person’s death. Historians have probed into the life and motives of everyone from the Founding Fathers to Adolph Hitler to shed light on the past. Even in this case,  McDonald acknowledged an “enduring and legitimate public interest in the case of a notorious serial killer,”

Exploring that interest is author Ron Robillard, who in 2010 requested records about Gilligan’s years in the psychiatric hospital, where she was confined after poisoning a resident of her nursing home with arsenic. He said  he sought the records because Gilligan’s perspective has not been told to the public.

(Full disclosure: Robillard is a friend of this newspaper and a former editor here.)

We think there ought to be a balance between these two viewpoints — perhaps a designated period of time after the death of the person in question, or of their immediate family until private truths can be disclosed.

But how can we forever shut the door on history?

Records Of ‘Arsenic And Old Lace’ Killer To Remain Secret – Hartford Courant

By David Altimari

HARTFORD — Nearly 200 pages of documents related to the medical and psychiatric treatment of notorious killer Amy Archer-Gilligan, the woman who became the subject of the play and movie “Arsenic and Old Lace,” will remain sealed after the state Supreme Court ruled Monday that they are not public records.

Archer-Gilligan died in state custody in 1962 at what is now known as Connecticut Valley Hospital, where she was sentenced to live after a Superior Court judge ruled her criminally insane in 1924. Archer-Gilligan, who ran a Windsor home for the elderly, was accused of murdering residents.

Windsor Woman Poisoned Multiple Tenants Of Her Home For The Elderly

The state Freedom of Information Commission had previously ruled that some of Archer-Gilligan’s medical and dental records from the 38 years she spent at CVH, should be released. [Read More]

Old lace and a new case – Meriden Record-Journal

Published: January 25, 2015 | Last Modified: January 25, 2015 01:01AM
Is a person who was convicted of poisoning two people in the 1920s — who then spent the rest of her life in a state-run psychiatric hospital and has no known living relatives — still entitled to have her medical records kept private?

That’s the question now before the Connecticut Supreme Court in the case of Amy Archer-Gilligan, who pleaded guilty to poisoning her husband as well as a client of her Windsor nursing home by putting arsenic in their food. She was also suspected of killing at least three other victims, possibly dozens more, by the same method.

East Hartford author Ron Robillard has filed a freedom of information request with the state Department of Mental Health Services, seeking Archer-Gilligan’s psychiatric and medical records for a book he is writing. Those records could shed light on how this state treated the mentally ill during the 38 years between 1924 and 1962 at what is now Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown.

In general, such records are protected by law, including the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but the Freedom of Information Commission ordered Archer-Gilligan’s records released, arguing that a federal policy also calls for the disclosure of personal records 50 years after the death of a person, and that condition has been satisfied in this case. The FOIC says that the public has a valid interest in these records because she was a public figure.

Which may seem odd to most of us, who don’t recognize her name. What we do recognize, though, is the name of the play, and subsequent Hollywood movie, that are widely believed to be loosely based on her story: “Arsenic and Old Lace.” So one thing the court will have to decide is whether the activities of the elderly Brewster sisters in that play — basically, poisoning the guests at their home for the elderly and burying them in the basement — makes Amy Archer-Gilligan a public figure.

Clearly she was not the Brewster sisters; they are fictional characters invented by playwright Joseph Kesselring in the 1930s. But it is widely believed that Archer-Gilligan provided the model for the play’s characters and plot.

The court may also have to decide whether a person’s right to privacy of medical records extends beyond death. Arguments that it does include the simple point that privacy is privacy, and that’s that.

Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline Hoell argued that the more than 200 pages are privileged psychiatric records and should remain sealed, just as they would be for any other patient in the state.

Hoell argued that disclosing Archer-Gilligan’s records would set a dangerous precedent that might discourage people from seeking psychiatric help, and she cited a difference between “legitimate public concern” and mere curiosity.

Arguments that privacy isn’t necessarily forever include the idea that there’s a historical imperative to sometimes investigate the past in order to make a better future; that taking a hard look at possible past abuses could prevent their recurrence and is therefore a good thing. Valicia Harmon, the commission’s attorney, told the Supreme Court justices that there is still plenty of public interest in Archer-Gilligan and that her medical records would provide a snapshot into the treatment given in the past.

Does public attention make you a public figure? Probably. Should Archer-Gilligan lose her privacy because she was an infamous figure and was sentenced to hang before being committed to a mental hospital, and then had a play written about her? Probably — but we’ll have to await the court’s decision.

Release Records Of Famous Killer – Hartford Courant

State has no business hiding records of real-life “Arsenic and Old Lace” murderer

Amy Archer Gilligan may have murdered dozens a century ago. What’s with the secrecy?

It’s absurd for the state to hide the medical records of Amy Archer Gilligan, one of Connecticut’s most notorious murderers.

Those killings happened a century ago. She has no family left. Who or what is the state protecting at this point?

Dozens of mysterious deaths at her Home for the Elderly and Infirm, starting in 1907, inspired the play “Arsenic and Old Lace” and a 1944 Frank Capra movie of the same name. Still, state officials are fighting tooth and nail on spurious privacy grounds to keep secret the records of her 38-year stay — until her death in 1962 — at Connecticut Valley Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility.

This isn’t the first time the state has insisted on hiding historic information of public interest. It’s also blocking a Connecticut historian from seeing the records of certain shell-shocked Civil War soldiers. A bill last year that would allow the release of medical records 50 years after a patient’s death was amended to black out all names, making the files useless.

The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act now allows access to medical records (with no blacking out) 50 years after a patient’s death. Why can’t Connecticut? The new HIPPA rule balances privacy interests with “the need for archivists, biographers, historians and others to access old or ancient records on deceased individuals for historical purposes,” according to

Ms. Archer Gilligan was found guilty of poisoning her husband and a guest at her Windsor nursing home. But she was suspected of killing dozens more victims in what The Courant described upon her arrest in 1916 as her “murder factory.” She’s a figure of morbid public fascination to this day.

East Hartford author Ron Robillard wants to know how the state treated her at what is now CVH. He filed a freedom of information request seeking medical and dental records. The FOI Commission ordered the records released.

But a trial court agreed with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services that the records be kept confidential. The case is now before the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments on Jan. 14.

DMHAS argued that disclosing records would set a dangerous precedent that might discourage people from seeking psychiatric help. Such secrecy, in fact, only adds to the stigma of mental illness and impedes greater understanding.