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 firstname.lastname@example.org.