Editorial: 60 years fighting for open government – The Day

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information had reason to celebrate at its annual meeting this month. It is the 60th anniversary of the group’s founding by Connecticut journalists seeking to protect the public’s right to know, a right not always appreciated or understood by the public, or by some public servants at every level of government who prefer to perform many of their functions away from the prying eyes of the taxpayer.

Also this year the group campaigned successfully to restore access to police arrest records lost in a state Supreme Court decision. Recognizing police could use the decision to keep the public in the dark about the circumstances surrounding arrests, the court itself recommended that the legislature explore remedial action.

This the legislature did, over the initial opposition of Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane. He eventually negotiated a compromise with Colleen Murphy, executive director of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission and her staff, and James Smith, president of the CCFOI. CCFOI cited the efforts of Rep. Ed Jutila of East Lyme for his fine work in shepherding the bill [Read More]

Open arrest records bill amended – West Hartford News

By Elizabeth Regan

HARTFORD >> The head of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission was among those surprised to learn a bill that would make arrest information available to the public was amended Monday by the Judiciary Committee.

Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy said she was unaware of an amendment that narrowed the scope of information a police department would have to give the public regarding an arrest. She said she was having trouble obtaining a copy of the amendment, which state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said was “written on the fly.” [Read More]

Fee for Connecticut court documents among highest in state – The Associated Press

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Copying public documents in Connecticut courts can be an expensive proposition at $1 a page, a fee set by state law that is double what cities and towns can charge and quadruple the rate collected by state agencies.

While high-priced lawyers may not think twice about the fee, it can be a bank account drainer for the thousands of low-income people who use state courts, especially in civil and family cases where the files can run dozens if not hundreds of pages.

Open records advocates say high fees can be worrisome in terms of the public’s access to government.

“We wouldn’t want the fees to be so high that it discourages access or prevents access,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel of the state Freedom of Information Commission. “Providing copies of public records shouldn’t necessarily be a source of revenue for government.”

But that appears to be the case in Connecticut.

The copying fee was increased from 50 cents to $1 a page in 1992 as part of a massive fee increase bill approved by state lawmakers and then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. that raised about $15 million during a budget crisis.

And the Judicial Branch doesn’t get to keep any of the $300,000 a year or so that it collects from the fee. The money goes straight into the state’s general fund.

In comparison, state law allows municipalities to charge up to 50 cents a page and state agencies 25 cents a page. Many other states have higher fees for court documents than those for records kept by state and municipal agencies.

“If you look at what it costs commercially to get a copy of something, maybe it’s 1 or 2 cents to copy per page,” Murphy said. “That’s the argument — that it really doesn’t cost that much to produce a paper copy.”

In 1994, two years after the court copying fee was increased, lawmakers and the governor approved a bill that decreased copying costs for state agency records from 50 cents to 25 cents a page, saying copying costs were too high. But they didn’t change the court fees.

Connecticut chief court administrator, Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, said state law does allow judges to waive copying fees, but only for people receiving public assistance or earning 125 percent or less of the federal poverty level — which is $24,250 a year for a family of four.

People can also look at records for free in courthouses, and many documents are available online at no charge.

“We have worked hard over the years to increase access to court documents by making more documents available online,” Carroll said. “Individuals may also bring in a hand held scanner to scan documents, without being charged the copy fee.”

Some of the most expensive copying fees in the state are for transcripts of court proceedings. Court reporters and monitors, who already are on the state payroll, can charge $3 a page for standard requests and up to $6.35 a page for transcripts requested to be ready the next business day after a proceeding.

Legislators Urged To Undo Court Ruling That Lets Police Suppress Arrest Details – Hartford Courant

Police departments in Connecticut don’t have to release much information about arrests that they make — not in a timely manner, anyway — and open-government advocates are now saying that legislators need to pass a bill to increase disclosure requirements.

While some police chiefs see a value in explaining the circumstances under which people are charged with crimes, other law enforcement officials such as the state police have long kept their disclosures to a minimum and left major holes in the public’s knowledge about what happened.

The situation has bred conflicts between law enforcement and citizens or reporters seeking arrest documents, but for the past couple of decades the state Freedom of Information Commission was able to manage a sort of uncomfortable balance between those opposing forces.


That balance was shattered, however, last summer by a state Supreme Court ruling in favor of the state police and against the FOI Commission: The court said police agencies don’t have to tell the public anything but the most perfunctory information about arrests while prosecutions are pending.

It can take months or years from the time a person is arrested until his or her case concludes in court. And that’s too long a delay — because the public needs to be able to judge, when an incident is fresh, whether the police acted properly and effectively, some supporters of disclosure told a legislative committee at the Capitol complex in Hartford on Friday.

“Because government gives its law enforcement agencies monopoly power over the use of force and incarceration, they pose one of the greatest threats to a democratic form of government, if and when that power is misused or abused,” said James H. Smith, president of the non-profit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

Smith was testifying in favor of House Bill 6750 — “An Act Expanding The Requirement For Disclosure Of Arrest Records During a Pending Prosecution Under the Freedom of Information Act” — at a hearing conducted by the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee.

The bill would amend state statutes to reverse last summer’s Supreme Court ruling. The court said that between the time a person is arrested until the conclusion of his or her prosecution in court, the police don’t need to release any more than: 1) “police blotter” information, including the “name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest and the offense for which the person was arrested”; and 2) a press release, which is typically brief and adds little to what’s on the police blotter.

Under House Bill 6750, police would have to disclose any “record that pertains to the arrest of any person” under the provisions of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Under that act, a citizen can appeal to the FOI Commission if a police department refuses to release a document and then the police get a chance to justify their action by citing one of several exemptions in the law — such as that disclosing a document could endanger a witness or jeopardize a prosecution.

That’s how it worked for about two decades prior to last summer’s Supreme Court decision, and that’s how it would be again if the bill passes, according to Smith and other FOI advocates.

Law enforcement officials weighed in against the bill, however. The state’s top prosecutor, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, submitted testimony saying his agency “fully recognizes the public’s right to receive information regarding the arrest of a citizen,” but “that right is adequately implemented” by the law on which the Supreme Court relied “which makes public the basic blotter information and some additional information regarding the circumstances that led to the arrest.””The disclosure of information beyond this amount should not be mandated by statute and should rest in the hands of law enforcement agencies, who are in the best position to protect the integrity of a pending prosecution and the safety of witnesses,” Kane testified.

Avoiding Scrutiny

Colleen Murphy, executive director of the FOI Commission, testified in favor of the new bill — saying that since last summer’s court ruling, police agencies can continue to “avoid public scrutiny of many aspects of an arrest, such as mug shots showing an arrestee’s appearance at the time of arrest, videotapes or other recordings made at the scene or in the police station, and records indicating an arrestee’s immigration status or whether the arrestee held a position of public trust, for example.”

“Should the police have unchallengeable discretion to decide whether the public can learn this very important information, or should this decision be vested in the FOIC, as it had been for many decades prior to the Court’s ruling?” Murphy said.

She said that Supreme Court “expressly recognized” in its decision last year that there are “numerous salutary effects of requiring greater disclosure,” adding that justices said it’s the General Assembly’s job to address the issue of requiring increased disclosure on arrests.

“By reversing [the court decision] and restoring broader disclosure requirements of law enforcement records after an arrest, [House Bill 6750] strikes an appropriate balance between promoting transparency in law enforcement and preserving the integrity of pending prosecutions,” Murphy said. “The FOIC strongly urges the legislature to adopt this carefully crafted bill.”

Last year’s court decision stemmed from a 2008 complaint to the FOIC by a New Haven Register reporter who was denied detailed state police reports that formed the basis of the arrest in Derby of a man on charges of attempted murder in the assault of an elderly man.

The state police said the reports sought by the reporter were exempt from disclosure. They provided an “official press release,” which contained the accused’s name, address and birth date; the date, time and location of the incident; the charges filed; and a two-paragraph narrative with additional information about the incident.

The FOI Commission ruled in favor of the reporter, but the police agency appealed in court. Two years later, when the accused pleaded guilty, the records originally requested were made public. But the court proceedings continued over the police’s refusal to release records at the time of the arrest — and those proceedings ultimately led to last year’s Supreme Court ruling.

Smith said at Friday’s hearing: “We simply ask the General Assembly to resolve an ambiguity that the Supreme Court recently identified in [the] General Statutes…and to restore the twenty-year interpretation of the Freedom of Information Commission that resolved the ambiguity in favor of greater openness and transparency. HB 6750 makes clear that “records of an arrest” — including basic blotter information — must always be released following an arrest.”

The committee’s two co-chairmen, Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, and Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, had different reactions to the bill Friday.

Cassano said he’s bothered by the prevalence of information on the Internet, television and in print media about people’s arrests when they haven’t been convicted of a crime, and may never be. That damage to a person’s reputation can’t be undone, he said.

Jutila said he thinks “we need to do something” in the wake of the high court decision because in many cases a police press release says virtually “nothing” to the public beyond to the basic blotter information.

Police agencies can pretty much give out all the information they want about an arrest, but that’s not the norm — and Jutila and others suggested that lawmakers need to improved upon the minimal disclosures required under the Supreme court ruling.

Even Kane agreed that “I think the public is entitled to more information than is routinely given” about an arrest. But he said he has begun discussing with Connecticut police chiefs a “protocol” under which departments would improve their disclosure policies. He said he didn’t yet have a target date for developing that.

Murphy said policies can always be reversed, and legislative action is needed to lock the changes into statutes.

Smith responded to Cassano’s comments by saying that public trials are fundamental to a free society — and they always involve public accusations before a finding of guilt or innocence.

Likewise, Murphy said that while arrest reports contain unproven allegations, it’s part of the price of having a free society in which there are no secret arrests as in other countries over the course of history. Also, she said, the FOI Act already contains exemptions that address Kane’s concerns about the harm that inappropriate disclosures could do to witnesses. Police reports could be “redacted” to remove information that could harm witnesses, she said, adding that the system worked fine for 20 years before last summer’s court ruling.

Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, said at Friday’s hearing that he admires and supports police — his grandfather was a cop — but he added that a police brutality incident in his hometown last year proved the value of releasing arrest information to the public.

He cited The Courant’s posting on its website of a video from an Enfield police cruiser showing three officers taking down an unarmed Windsor man last April, with one of them striking him repeatedly. Officer Matthew Worden was fired Oct. 3 over allegations that he used excessive force during the arrest.

Disclosure of such information “sheds light” not only on rare police misconduct that the public should know about, but also on the good conduct of most police officers, Alexander said.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on




Legislators Seek To Open Window On UConn Foundation – Hartford Courant

Some legislators think the UConn Foundation should be more open to public scrutiny

Five bills are pending this year seeking greater transparency for the UConn Foundation

For years, attempts to require the University of Connecticut Foundation to be more open about how it raises and spends millions of dollars each year have fizzled in the legislature.

But this year, new efforts to shed more light on the foundation’s operations appear to have greater momentum. Foundation officials, however, appear as determined as ever to keep their books closed.

“UConn has its boosters,” said state Rep. Roberta Willis, a Salisbury Democrat and co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s higher education committee. “This year, I’m hearing from more critics than I’m hearing from boosters.”

Among the reasons: The foundation, a private, nonprofit fundraising arm for the university, drew widespread criticism for controversial expenditures last year, including $251,250 paid to Hillary Clinton for a lecture in April and its agreement to contribute $300,000 toward a 20 percent increase in UConn President Susan Herbst’s compensation.

Willis said such expenditures raise the question: “How much largesse is there that could be used to offset costs? You have all this money — why aren’t you giving more to help with costs, so that then tuition doesn’t have to go up as much?”

This year’s debate over whether the foundation should be subject to closer public scrutiny began Thursday when the higher education committee raised a bill called “an act requiring transparency of expenditures for higher education foundations” of public colleges and universities. Under Connecticut state law, those higher education foundations are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Willis said the committee, which has “mixed feelings” on the subject, will hold a public hearing on the issue before it decides exactly what should be included in the bill. Last week, those opinions covered a wide range.

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, said she wants the foundation to be open, with information available on donors and expenditures. “It’s not to be intrusive, it’s just for clarity,” said Walker who also is co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, on the other hand, said that the foundation has been successful and that there is no need to change the law.

In the meantime, foundation representatives have been meeting with legislators to voice their opposition to any bill that would force them to open more of their operation to public inspection. They have also been promoting the accomplishments of the organization — new gifts and commitments went up from $63 million in 2013 to $81 million in 2014.

Chasing Away Donors?

Joshua R. Newton, the foundation’s $350,000-a-year president and CEO, said he has had “multiple conversations with donors” who have told him they are nervous about any legislation that might result in wider public access to the organization’s records.

“My stance, as it always has been, … is in opposition to anything that might cause our donors to pull back,” Newton said.

While many donors are happy to have their names publicized, Newton said there are those who don’t feel that way. In addition, some donors are concerned that if all the foundation’s expenditures are made public, it will be a step toward treating private donations like public money. If that happens, the fear is that legislators might cut back on state support for the university.

“Our donors are very concerned that their money will replace state money,” Newton said, “and then their gift will have no impact on the institution.” If donors thought that were occurring, Newton said, “they absolutely would stop giving.”

Besides, Newton argued, the foundation is already “very transparent.” It files an annual report to donors, has an independent audit that’s available to the public, and financial documents that are filed with the Internal Revenue Service and open for inspection.”I’m not trying to hide anything,” Newton said. “We’ve got accountability to the donor, accountability to the external audit, as well as the internal audit, accountability to the board of directors, accountability to the attorney general. … I’m confused about the conversation about transparency and accountability because I think it’s strong already.”

But clearly, many legislators believe that transparency is insufficient: At least five bills have been filed this session that are aimed at greater public access to foundation operations. In at least a couple of the cases, the bills seek to repeal a state statute passed in 1989 that exempts public university foundations from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

One bill filed by Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, and another filed jointly by Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, and Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, require the foundation to disclose expenditures, but not the names of donors.

The bill filed by Fasano and Witkos goes further, calling for the foundation to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and prescribing how the foundation uses its donations, restricting the use for scholarships and direct financial aid and for programs and services related to the university and its campuses. The bill also would prohibit the foundation from receiving any funds from UConn.

Foundation officials say that bill, as it is written, would kill the organization because it would eliminate the $8 million the foundation receives from UConn for operational costs and ban the group from spending any of the money it raises on operations.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, has filed a bill calling for the foundation to be subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act; a similar bill he filed last year never made it out of committee.

“When you commingle taxpayer funds and privately raised funds, you have to be subject to FOI because so is every other taxpayer dollar subject to Freedom of Information,” McLachlan said.

State Reps. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, and Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, filed separate bills that would require the state auditors to audit the foundation.

Lopes’s bill prohibits “any entity other than the Auditors of Public Accounts” from performing an audit of a foundation established by any public institution of higher education. It also requires the foundation to cover the cost of the audit.

The UConn Foundation now has an annual audit performed by a private accounting firm, but Lopes said if it were done by the state auditors, it would “improve accountability and save money.”

‘You Can’t Offload Accountability’

How much additional disclosure bills might require may turn partly on the question of how closely aligned the foundation is to the university.

“Not to say we think there is anything bad going on with the foundation, but when its mission is so closely tied to the university’s mission, to promote the educational objectives of the university … then transparency is generally a good thing,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. The agency submitted testimony last year in favor of McLachlan’s bill.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center and an expert on the First Amendment, said that nationally “it’s really a mixed bag” as to how open public university foundations are.

“The common denominator seems to be, you are not going to find out very much at all about the donors,” LoMonte said. “You can find out a lot more about how the money is being spent than you can about who is giving it.”

But LoMonte maintains that it’s important to know the identity of the donors, as well, partly to determine who might be attempting to buy influence with the university.

The best argument for why a foundation should be subject to open government laws is if “they are doing something that the public university would have to do if the foundation didn’t exist,” LoMonte said. “You can’t offload accountability by putting on the hat of a private corporation.”

LoMonte said his organization is “an advocate for open government in colleges and schools.”

“Foundations, athletic associations and any other private, nonprofit arm of a public university should be fully covered by state open records and open meetings law. It’s a meaningless distinction to say a vital function of a public university can somehow magically be transformed into a private corporation.”And the colleges are very upfront. The reason they incorporate is to avoid disclosure. That’s the main reason they do it. … There’s only one reason to incorporate these auxiliary institutions, and that’s to avoid public disclosure.”

According to a study by the Office of Legislative Research, Connecticut is the only state that specifically exempts public university foundations from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

In a report issued in September, the research office said that FOI laws in other New England states “generally do not address university foundations specifically, but it is unclear whether the lack of a specific exemption make the foundations subject to FOI laws.”

The report says that some of the New England states’ laws address specific foundation records. For example, the report says, Massachusetts and Rhode Island “specifically restrict public access to the identities of donors who wish to remain anonymous.”

The report also noted that the UConn Foundation raises substantially more money than the other foundations at New England flagship universities. The University of Vermont Foundation came the closest, with $55.2 million raised in the 2014 fiscal year, almost $26 million less than what was raised by the UConn Foundation. The University of Massachusetts Foundation raised the next highest amount, $32 million in the 2013 fiscal year.

Mitchell Pearlman, who retired in 2005 after 30 years as executive director of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission, said he argued against exempting public university foundations in the late 1980s and urged greater transparency for the foundation over the years.

But, he said, “as long as UConn basketball keeps winning, no way the legislature is going to change it. It all kind of coincided. There were so many alumni in the legislature the pressure was just too great.

“We all like to see [the foundation] successful, but we’d also like to see some accountability.”

The President’s House

Newton offered explanations for recent foundation expenses that have raised the most questions.

The money spent on Hillary Clinton’s lecture on April 23 was from a donor who wanted to fund a series of five lectures over five years, he said.

Regarding the foundation’s contributions to Herbst’s salary, Newton said the chairman of the university’s board of trustees, Larry McHugh, asked if the foundation could contribute more money. So the foundation boosted its support from $145,000 to $300,000 per year, bringing Herbst’s total compensation to more than $758,000 in 2015.

“It was a [foundation] board decision,” Newton said. Herbst has been a strong leader and a good fundraiser, Newton said. “If Susan were to leave, the impact on fundraising would be significant.

“People give to people, people give to vision, people give to leadership,” Newton said. “The vision Susan put forward, the excitement she’s created on campus around the state and the country. … That’s part of what is drawing in additional philanthropy.”

Another controversial expenditure was the 2013 purchase, for $660,000, of a house in Hartford’s West End for UConn’s president. Newton said that money was provided by 14 donors who specifically earmarked the money for that purpose. He said the money was donated years before Herbst arrived on campus and wasn’t used until Newton arrived and the donors asked him why the money was never spent.

The house is meant as a place to entertain donors and where Herbst can stay when she has business nearby. Newton said it’s also been a good spot for her to meet with faculty from the UConn Law School, located a few blocks away, and with staff and faculty from the UConn Health Center in Farmington.

“I can certainly tell you we’ve had dozens of dinner parties there … for that kind of intimate experience, for those who gave the most generously, to thank them,” Newton said. “This is what great universities do and it was one of the things we were missing.”

Finding out the cost of those dinner parties is the kind of thing the public can’t do now. While plenty of information is available through the foundation’s tax documents and reports, the figures tend to be large aggregate numbers.

For instance, it’s easy to find out that the foundation provided $49.4 million in university support last year, including $8.8 million for scholarships and fellowships; $20.6 million for the UConn Basketball Champions Center; $8.9 million for faculty and staff compensation; and $2.4 million on fundraising. But unless the foundation chooses to disclose it, you won’t get the financial details on an elegant dinner party for donors or on a trip for donors to a UConn sports event.

Newton said he fears if that level of detail were made public, “I think the general citizen is not going to understand that. … To me, it creates more confusion and really will hinder our ability to do what we do.”

Willis said she understands why foundation officials might be hesitant to have such detailed information available to the public.

“I understand what you do when you cultivate high donors,” she said. “That’s what the [Hartford] house is all about, but I I think they shouldn’t be afraid of disclosing that information.”

Copyright © 2015, Hartford Courant

Tighter Rules OK’d On Public’s Access To Crime Records – Courant.com

HARTFORD — The stage is set for a showdown at the General Assembly on crime victim privacy and the public’s right to know.


On Tuesday, the legislature’s judiciary committee approved a bill that would establish new restrictions on the public’s ability to access police records such as 911 tapes and crime scene photos. It also would prohibit the release of photographs of child murder victims.

In urging his colleagues to back the bill, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said it strikes the right balance. The measure mirrors the recommendations of a legislative task force formed last year to study issues of privacy versus disclosure, after some families of victims killed in the 2012 Newtown school…Click here to continue reading.