Open government groups call on the Senate to pass FOIA reforms during Sunshine Week –

03/14/16 – Press Release

Today, more than 40 organizations and individuals committed to government openness and accountability sent a letter thanking Senators Grassley, Leahy and Cornyn for their authorship of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 (S.337), and urging the earliest possible passage of the bill. [Read More]

MuckRock’s FOIA redaction hall of shame – Muckrock

A Sunshine Week look at the most egregious, embarassing, and downright █████ uses of the black box

03-14-16 – By JPat Brown

If you only have a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail – and as we’ve learned over the years from many an overenthusiastic FOIA officer, if you only have a sharpie, then every document looks classified. As part of our Sunshine Week coverage, we put together a list of the most ridiculous redactions we’ve (un)seen. [Read More]


OP-ED | Shine a Light on Connecticut –

3/14/16 – By Susan Bigelow

There’s no disinfectant like a little sunlight, as the saying goes, and that seems truer than ever in our age where there’s ever more information but also a growing tendency of government to keep information out of public hands. That worrisome trend must be reversed if we’re ever going to get the open, accountable government that we deserve. [Read More]

Transparency Compromise For UConn Foundation A Good Step – Hartford Courant

03/15/16 – By Editorial Board

The goal of transparency advocates to make the UConn Foundation subject to the state Freedom of Information Act would not be satisfied if pertinent legislation now before the General Assembly is enacted.

But the legislation represents progress in the long-running battle between transparency and secrecy at the foundation and should be passed.

The foundation, with a $383 million endowment, is UConn’s fund-raising arm. It is a nonprofit that uses $8 million a year in public funds to help it operate on behalf of Connecticut’s flagship public university. [Read More]

Editorial: Sunshine needed –

Mitchell W. Pearlman, of Glastonbury, probably knows as much about open government as anyone. He has served as director of both the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission and the Office of State Ethics. He has taught, lectured and written extensively on the subject, and has consulted on democratic governance both in this country and abroad.

So if Pearlman is concerned about the direction in which the General Assembly is steering this state — and he is — then we should probably take notice. And he says our legislature, which once was a pioneer in open government, having passed the landmark Freedom of Information Act in 1975, “more recently has earned a reputation as one that tolerates corruption and governmental misconduct.”

From city halls to the Capitol, recent years in our state have been darkened by the corruption trials of public officials, including a second guilty verdict on the same ex-governor. And the current governor, instead of concluding that more openness might lead to better government, has doubled his relentless efforts to bring the formerly independent Freedom of Information Commission to heel.

Then, last summer, the state Supreme Court issued a divided decision that allowed law enforcement agencies to keep more information secret. They can now disclose a bare minimum of arrest information until prosecution, and that can take months, sometimes years. Previously, police had to provide more information about arrests or give good reason why that information should not be made public.

Why this change of direction? Why, four decades after Watergate, are we heading toward more government secrecy?

Fortunately, there’s a bill before the legislature — HB 6750, “An Act Expanding the Requirement for Disclosure of Arrest Records during a Pending Prosecution under the Freedom of Information Act” — that would restore some of the FOIC’s authority, but at the moment it’s bottled up in committee.

Remarkably, the court in its decision explicitly recognized that its interpretation of the law was in need of clarification by the appropriate branch of government — the legislature. For that reason alone, HB 6750 at least deserves a debate by that body.

There are times when police need to withhold information; for instance, to protect the identity of an informer. But the FOI Act already allows for such exceptions, so that’s no reason to hamstring the law.

Society entrusts the police with great power, including the exclusive right to use force. While we believe that most cops honestly try to do the right thing, there have been too many exceptions, both here and across the nation, not to keep safeguards in place.

One of those safeguards was Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, before the court watered it down. HB 6750 would restore some of its bite, so this bill should get a full hearing and debate. Let the General Assembly take the reins and steer our state back toward open government.

What grows in the darkness? Only creepy-crawly things. Let there be light!

Editorial: Police Should Not Be Deciding What Public Can Know – Hartford Courant

Editorial: It’s in the public’s welfare to have information on crimes in communities.

A state with the nickname of Corrupticut should think hard about the wisdom of leaving entirely up to police whether to release important arrest records while a prosecution is pending.

A 2014 state Supreme Court ruling allows police to withhold all but the sparest of information on arrests until cases are prosecuted, which can take years. The court said police must release so-called blotter information (name, address, time of arrest, charges) and little more.

Even before the ruling, getting such public records as mug shots and cruiser videos was not easy in Connecticut. Civilians in towns with histories of police problems (Enfield and East Haven come to mind) should be especially concerned that such evidence will be out of reach just when the public needs it.

The ruling was based on what one critic called a “tortured” interpretation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. House Bill 6750 would restore what Connecticut had for two decades: public access to police arrest records unless those records qualified for exemption. Exemptions included juvenile records or anything that could identify or cause harm to a witness.

The bill should pass. At the very least, it should break through a logjam in the government, administration and elections committee for a debate on the floor of the House.

It’s in the public’s welfare to have information on crimes in communities. But also, the public should be free to monitor how police are handling arrests. Public records can serve as a check on abuses of their considerable powers.

The Rev. James Manship, for example, was arrested in 2009 for videotaping East Haven police at a Hispanic grocery store. The priest later said, after the two officers were found guilty of violating the civil rights of Latinos, “There were 27 drafts of my police report, 27 drafts of fiction upon fiction upon fiction to try and discredit me.” Under the supreme court ruling, police may choose to give out a press release instead of a police report. It’s entirely up to them.

Many police departments are loath to abide by even the minimal requirements that the supreme court says they must follow. In a compliance check last year by three Connecticut newspapers, New Haven police and state police Troop G in Bridgeport, among others, refused to provide even basic blotter information on arrests.

Coincidentally, this is the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, a celebration started by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It’s also the 66th anniversary of the book “Freedom of Information,” written by the late Hartford Courant Editor in Chief Herbert Brucker (also president of ASNE). It’s a shame that the state where the now-ubiquitous term for open government was coined is lapsing into secrecy.

Email Secrecy Shows Contempt For Public’s Right To Know – Hartford Courant

On Sunday we welcome the beginning of Sunshine Week, when access to public information is celebrated. Unfortunately, though we live in an information age, the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s access to documents is under siege.

Hillary Clinton gave vivid testimony on Tuesday to the hostility the powerful feel toward the notion that they are conducting the people’s business and that the people have a right to know the details of what they do in our name. The former secretary of state’s hostile and convoluted United Nations press conference on the fate of scores of thousands of emails written while she served as the nation’s top diplomat bore witness to the underhanded acts the powerful will commit to lock out the public.

In conjunction with becoming secretary of state in 2009, the unsuccessful presidential candidate of the year before created a private email account on which she conducted all her official business for the next four years. The server, she claims, was safely maintained at her home in affluent Westchester County, New York.

Clinton and her advisers, she said, determined which emails to turn over to the State Department late last year. Thousands of others that she deemed personal were deleted. Secrecy and obfuscation have long been Clinton calling cards. This time her contempt for the public’s right to know how its business is conducted has been exposed under a searing light of public scrutiny.

The problem of government officials taking public documents with them when they leave office is not limited to Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for president next year. Forty years ago, the late Gov. Ella Grasso thrust Connecticut into the forefront of open government laws. Today, our state government is a nest of hostility to those principles.

Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell‘s chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, was a notorious email deleter. The Malloy administration was discovered early on doubling down on secrecy by establishing a shadowy network of private email accounts to use for conducting public business.

When those officials leave their public jobs, their public records go with them. No one in state government has expressed any inclination to take on the combative palace guard around the governor and secure the public’s documents before they are lost or destroyed.

Open government laws are about more than documents. They also include protecting the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the astonishing Jan. 9 decision of the state’s parole board to release inmate Gary Castonguay from prison in July. On Nov. 21, 1977, Castonguay executed 28-year-old Plainville police Officer Robert Holcomb as he, Castonguay, fled from the scene of a burglary.

The state’s attorney’s office that prosecuted Castonguay and Officer Holcomb’s family were not properly notified of the meeting and did not attend. The brief meeting of the panel included a 33-second opening statement by Castonguay in which excuses overshadowed regret. The panel voted 2-1 to release the killer at the end of a meeting that was light on serious inquiry.

The panel will meet again on March 25 at 9 a.m. to hear additional information and, if there is any justice, create a complete and accurate record of Castonguay’s crimes. State’s Attorney Brian Preleski’s March 2 letter to the board provided a chilling picture of Castonguay and the danger he presents to the public.

“Gary Castonguay,” Preleski wrote, “is a career criminal with a firearms fetish who, at the time he executed Robert Holcomb, was 33 years old and averaged more than one criminal conviction for each year of his adult life.” Castonguay “targeted law enforcement and their families for his ire.”

Contrast this with the loving portrait of Officer Holcomb submitted to the parole board by his sister-in-law, Sue Holcomb. She writes, “After high school, he joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. … His tour of duty of duty was over and he came home on leave. His mother and father … had a Mass of Thanksgiving said for him. Bobby didn’t have the heart to tell them that he had re-enlisted for a second tour.”

That letter is now a public record, too, and reminds us why we want the sun to shine on the people’s business.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached