Monday, January 13, 2014

Frankfort paper calls Kentucky State's 'gag order' outrageous, at odds with a university's mission

This editorial from The State Journal in Frankfort is published in its entirety because the newspaper's editorials are behind a pay wall.

A gag order is a means, usually issued by a court, for restricting information from being made public.

A judge may not want sensitive information from a closed hearing to be discussed publicly, may need to protect the privacy of victims or minors, or may feel it necessary to keep trade or military secrets from being revealed.

Negatively, however, gag orders may also be used as a form of censorship to limit freedom of expression or freedom of the press.

State Journal editorial cartoon by Linda Boileau
Unbelievably, a type of gag order is apparently in existence at Kentucky State University after being discussed at its Board of Regents meeting Wednesday in Lexington.

Regents discussed that if approached by a student, staff member or faculty member, they should refer them to KSU President Mary Sias, who will in turn speak to Board Chair Karen Bearden to place them on the agenda to speak at a future board meeting.

Furthermore, the board also discussed how to react when approached by a reporter wishing to speak to them about a dissenting vote on an issue. Bearden asked them to respond with “no comment” and inform her about it, so she could contact Sias about the best way to respond.

This discussion by a public university’s board of regents — at any college or university — is not only outrageous, but is completely incongruous with what we hope college students are being taught.

A majority of the regents are not employees of the university. While the board includes a faculty, staff and student representative, the other eight are appointed by the governor. No one is higher on the organizational chart than a member of the Board of Regents. They do not report to the university president, rather the university president reports to them.

A member of a school’s faculty or staff may feel so deeply about an issue he or she wishes to speak to a board member rather than an administrator. If the policy is to tell that person to instead speak to the university president, faculty and staff members would certainly be more reluctant to come forward.

Plus, they may wish to speak in private, not be placed as an item on a future meeting agenda.

The men and women appointed to university boards should be thoughtful, intelligent people. They have offered to serve in a leadership role at an institution of higher learning and they bring together diverse and varied views and backgrounds.

So we refuse to understand why they wouldn’t be allowed to speak — and more importantly wouldn’t want to speak — to faculty, staff or a member of the press.

We know we are outraged by the actions of the board and we believe others should be as well, among them the governor, the taxpayers, the faculty, the staff and the students.

The members of the Board of Regents are not appointed to be puppets and mimes. They are appointed to be independent thinking individuals willing to express their viewpoints.

There are important reasons why laws govern open meetings and open records, especially that the public has the right to know how its tax dollars are being spent.

Similarly, appointed and elected individuals should have every right to speak freely to those they oversee and those who report on their actions.

That the Kentucky State University Board of Regents would essentially decide to say no comment until they ask the university president how they should respond is a slap in the face of all that governing boards should be about.

We suggest the members of the KSU Board of Regents undo this ridiculous policy or let the governor find people willing to intelligently speak to the public that he can appoint to replace them.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

C-J says Beshear must set health-and-family cabinet right on child-abuse records, following judge's order

The Courier-Journal published a remarkable editorial Sunday excoriating the Cabinet for Health and Family Services for the high level of secrecy in which it has enveloped cases of children who were killed or nearly killed while its caseworkers were supposed to see that they were protected from harm. Last week a judge ordered the cabinet to pay nearly $1 million in civil penalties and attorneys' fees to the newspapers that have been seeking the records. Rather than excerpt the editorial, we publish it in full, along with photographs of the officials it holds responsible. For larger versions, click on the images.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Appeals court upholds award of attorney fees to reporter, citing city's repeated 'false denials'

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled today that the City of Owensboro must pay the legal fees of a newspaper reporter to whom it refused to give copies of complaint forms about the police department's public-information officer.

James Mayse of the Messenger-Inquirer sought records involving Marian Cosgrove, who resigned her job in November 2011 after coming under investigation by the department. He asked for any documents related to any complaint about her, and the city repeatedly said it had no records that would be responsive to his requests.

Mayse appealed to Attorney General Jack Conway, whose office asked for and got the investigative files from the city. Conway ruled that the city must release the initial complaint forms in the file because they are not exempt from the state Open Records Act. The city appealed to Daviess Circuit Court, where Judge Jay Wethington ruled for Mayse. He said the city's denials were "willfully defiant" of the intent of the law and done in "bad faith," so the city should pay Mayse's legal fees.

The city appealed, but gave Mayse the two Professional Standards Complaint Forms, so the appeals court dismissed that part of city's appeal. In granting Mayse attorney fees, the three-judge panel wrote, "The City's response, on three separate occasions, that no record responsive to Mayse's requests for complaints is problematic given the egis of the Open Records Act. In fact, there were two documents labeled "Professional Standards Complaint Forms" in Cosgrove's file from the inception of Mayse's requests. When the attorney general asked repeatedly about the existence of 'any other document,' the city also denied the existence of such documents to the OAG. The circuit court found the city's explanation that the information was incorrectly put on a complaint form and labeled 'internal' was not persuasive and defied the statutory intent of the Open Records Act. In essence, the City repeatedly made false denials of the existence of any complaints regarding Cosgrove." The decision is here.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ky. high court says police can't just dismiss records requests using prospective-action exemption

The Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled today that law enforcement records are subject to open-records requests even if there is a "prospective law enforcement action," and that to withhold records for that reason, a law-enforcement agency must prove that a premature release of the them would hurt its prospective action.

The state's highest court ruled in a case brought by The Kentucky Enquirer, which wants the investigative file about a murder to which the victim's widow pleaded guilty in 2009 but is now seeking a new trial, alleging she had ineffective counsel. The Gannett Co. newspaper, an edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer, has been seeking the file since the case concluded.

The ruling "is a big step forward for us," Kentucky Press Association counsel Jon Fleischaker told the newspaper organization, which supported the Enquirer's efforts. "The court handed down some guidelines for proof in an open-records case which will be very helpful to us, especially in cases like the pending action against the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Finally, there is very useful language regarding the imposition of attorney’s fees and the circumstances under which the award of attorney’s fees is appropriate.  Those guidelines will be useful for all of us." For Fleischaker's note and a copy of the decision, click here.

The court "found that although the municipality’s response to The Enquirer request for records was inadequate, it has not been shown to have willfully violated the law, and so does not provide a basis for sanctions," Jim Hannah writes for the newspaper. "The Enquirer had asked that the municipality pay its legal bills in the case. Fort Thomas was ordered to make a good faith effort to identify those records responsive to The Enquirer’s request and either provide them to the newspaper or explain with why, under the law, they are exempt. A Campbell Circuit Court judge would then be asked to review what the city claimed was exempt to ensure the law was being followed." (Read more)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Illegal meetings held by Danville commission, court says; and by Murray regents, attorney general says

"Two rulings came this week — one in circuit court, one by the attorney general — that public agencies have violated the state’s open meetings law," David Thompson writes in his weekly missive as executive director of the Kentucky Press Association.

"In Boyle Circuit Court, a judge ruled Thursday that the Danville City Commission held an illegal session and in the much-publicized Murray State University situation, an AG’s ruling on Wednesday said the Board of Regents violated the law by discussing the MSU president’s situation the night before the board’s official meeting."

Thompson's post has a short story from Todd Kleffman of The Advocate-Messenger and draws from a story in The Paducah Sun distributed by The Associated Press. To read it, click here.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

AG says UK should release records on pediatric heart surgery program, which is under review

Attorney General Jack Conway has ruled that the University of Kentucky hospital violated the state Open Records Act by refusing to give a reporter for the university-owned radio station records relating to the work of the chief of cardiothoracic surgery, who has stopped doing surgery on children. UK refused to let Conway's staff examine the records to evaluate UK's claimed need for confidentiality.

After inquiries by Brenna Angel of WUKY, "UK announced that the hospital had stopped performing pediatric cardiothoracic surgeries pending an internal review," John Cheves writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Angel reports that she sought records on Dr. Mark Plunkett, left, who was also director of the pediatric and congenital heart program: "the date of Plunkett’s last surgery, the mortality rate of pediatric heart surgery cases, and documentation related to the program’s review." She sought no patient-specific data.

UK denied her request, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and arguing that release of the information could lead to the identification of one or more patients because Plunkett was doing so few surgeries on children. It also cited HIPAA in refusing to let Conway's staff review the records. Conway rejected that argument, noting that HIPAA does not supersede state laws and even make allowances for them.

Because it deals with the Open Records Act, Conway's decision has the force of law. UK can appeal the decision to circuit court within 30 days of March 27, the date of the decision. "UK spokesman Jay Blanton says officials are considering whether to file an appeal," Angel reports. The decision was publicly released Monday, the same day UK held a press conference about "the progress UK Healthcare has made in cardiology," she notes. "Yet the pediatric cardiothoracic surgery program remains under review, and patients from Central and Eastern Kentucky are being referred to hospitals out of state. Dr. Mark Plunkett remains on staff."

When Angel asked Dr. Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs, to comment, he replied, “We’ll have something to say about that in a little while.” Cheves notes, "UK recruited Plunkett, a noted surgeon at the University of California at Los Angeles, in 2007 to strengthen its pediatric heart program. He makes $700,000 a year, one of the highest salaries at UK." (Read more)

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Lawyer Kim Greene wins UK's James Madison Award for service to the First Amendment

Kim Greene, who was one of Kentucky's leading First Amendment lawyers, received the James Madison Award tonight from the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. The center presents the award for outstanding service to the First Amendment by someone with ties to Kentucky.

Greene, of Louisville, was instrumental in starting the Freedom of Information Hotline for the Kentucky Press Association in 1986. It remains the only such free hotline for newspapers in the U.S. In 1996 she helped start KPA's Legal Defense Fund Hotline. She was named KPA's most valuable member in 2001.

Greene represented many Kentucky newsrooms. Max Heath, who was executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers, said in his nomination that she was "a velvet hammer" as an attorney, always smooth and professional but firm in her advocacy. She won the First Prize from the Louisville Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2005 for her First Amendment work.

Greene, a native of Ashland, told the crowd at UK's Young Library Auditorium that she fell in love with the First Amendment when she was in law school, then with journalists who used it to serve the public. "The First Amendment is just that special ingredient that makes our country so different from all others," she said.

Greene told the student journalists in the audience, "there's hardly any more important work in our country that you could be doing." She is married to First Amendment lawyer Jon Fleischaker, won won the Madison Award several years ago.

Grayson, left, speaks with UK accounting
senior Aleksey Graboviy after his speech.
(Kentucky Kernel photo by Tessa Lighty)
The award was presented at the center's annual Celebration of the First Amendment. The annual "State of the First Amendment" address was given by Trey Grayson, director of the Institute on Politics in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Kentucky's secretary of state from 2004 to 2011.

Grayson spoke on occasional conflicts of the First Amendment with the right to vote, as seen in news-media coverage of voting and the ubiquity of cameras, which pose threats to the privacy of voting, and Kentucky's law on electioneering near voting places, passed after a federal appeals court struck down a ban on electioneering within 500 feet of the polls, with an exception for private property. Current law sets a 300-foot limit with no private-property exception, and "That strikes me as still being a little broad," Grayson said.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Get ready for Sunshine Week, March 10-16

Sunshine Week, the annual observance to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, is set for March 10-16. It's always the week of March 16, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment.

Sunshine Week is driven by journalists, but it seeks to enlighten and empower all Americans to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger. Participants include news media, government officials, schools and universities, libraries and archives, non-profit and civic organizations, historians and individuals with an interest in open government.

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, chief sponsors of the event, have laid nationwide plans for events, special stories and release of freedom-of-information studies. With a continuing endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a 2013 donation from Bloomberg LP, the groups produce useful materials for participants and keep the Sunshine Week website and social media sites engaged.

"Our ongoing mission is to ensure that government at all levels remains transparent for the public and for reporters in all platforms,"  said Reporters Committee Chair Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal. "This is a great opportunity to engage many different partners in open government education and discussions."

The National Newspaper Association is one of several co-sponsors. “The importance of open government cannot be understated,” said Deb McCaslin, chair of NNA’s Government Relations Committee. “Community newspapers are on the front lines in their towns, covering their chambers of commerce and school board meetings and keeping their readers informed about what is going on at the local level. These publications make a very real difference in the lives of the people in their communities. Without these newspapers keeping their local governments accountable, democracy would falter.”

Other particpants include the American Library Association, The Associated Press, The Cato Institute; the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch); the Center for Responsive Politics; the Inland Press Association; the New England First Amendment Coalition; the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. (Read more)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Burnside violated Open Records Act, AG says

The City of Burnside, in Pulaski County, violated the Open Records Act when it did not respond in writing to a proper request to City Council Member Frank DeNiro’s request for public records, according to the attorney general’s decision on the matter.

DeNiro requested to “’view the most current Burnside water plant plans - drawings and water lines,’” on April 4, 2012, according to the decision.

DeNiro asked Burnside Mayor Ron Jones to see the city’s water plant plans, and with no definite response, filed an open records request, according to his account of the process, which was mentioned in the attorney general’s decision.

He said he later asked to receive a written response and was told the mayor had made an inquiry to the Kentucky League of Cities. DeNiro said he then received an email that stated he could not see the plans because of Homeland Security issues.

According to email exchanges provided by DeNiro sent between Jones and workers at the KLC, the mayor was advised that the city would “have to give a detailed explanation of ‘reasonable likelihood of threatening the public safety by exposing a vulnerability,’ if they plan to deny these records.”

KLC Legal Services Analyst Kim Johnson also advised the mayor that denying records on those grounds would be difficult, too, because the requester was a city council member.

The attorney general’s office received DeNiro’s appeal on Dec. 4, and Burnside City Attorney D. Bruce Orwin responded to the appeal.

“‘The mayor of the City of Burnside informs me that neither the City of Burnside nor any of its departments have copies of these plans for the records requested by Mr. DeNiro,’” according to the Orwin’s response as stated in the attorney general’s decision.

Orwin said that the mayor said should the records be deemed acceptable for release that he would request the plans remain in city offices, with no photocopies or photos of the plans being permitted because of security concerns.

“We find that the City of Burnside failed to meet its first obligation under the Open Records Act, which is to give a timely written response to a written request to view public records,” according to the decision.

By failing to respond in writing, the city of Burnside also committed a procedural error. And, since the city misrepresented the advice it received from the KLC, the city’s conduct was seen as “a substantive denial of inspection.”

“At no time did the City either make the required written response or justify the withholding of any records under a specific provision of” Kentucky state law, according to the decision.

The attorney general’s office stated that it did not have enough information to say why Burnside would not be in possession of the records and referred the matter to the Department of Libraries and Archives to take action should it be deemed appropriate.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

AG says broad request for emails doesn't have to be fulfilled for six months

The Boone County clerk can make a man who requested almost a quarter of a million emails wait six months to get the records, Attorney General Jack Conway said in an open-records decision released today.

On Nov. 19, 2012, attorney Paul Croushore requested emails sent from or to 10 individuals, and containing any of 69 terms, during 2011. The clerk's office told him he would have to wait six months, "given the broad scope of the request and the necessity of reviewing each of the estimated 50,000 responsive emails to redact protected information," unless he wanted to reduce the number of search terms, while reserving the right to add more later, the decision says.

Croushore appealed to Conway's office, which cited a decision this year in a case involving the Campbell County Library. It also noted that the decision urged records requesters to "frame their requests as narrowly as possible and, if unable or unwilling to do so, to expect reasonable delays in records production." That decision is 12-ORD-097. Today's is 12-ORD-228.

Monday, December 31, 2012

UK has pediatric heart program under review, won't talk about it or release key records

Kentucky Children's Hospital at the University of Kentucky is reviewing its cardio-thoracic surgery program and referring surgical patients to other hospitals, "but the reasons why are unclear," mainly because UK officials won't talk about it or release pertinent records, Brenna Angel reported Dec. 21 for WUKY-FM, the university-owned station.

Angel did identify "the surgeon at the center of the review," Dr. Mark Plunkett, left, who is on a leave of absence but "remains on staff at UK with a $700,000 annual salary," as chief of cardio-thoracic surgery. "UK denied an open-records request for the date of his most recent surgery and his patient mortality rate," citing privacy rules in the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It was unclear how release of such statistics, without any personally identifying information, would compromise privacy. Plunkett and officials of the medical center refused to be interviewed.

"It's been pretty hush-hush," Tabitha Rainey of Lexington, the mother of a Plunkett patient, told Angel, who reported: "Plunkett and his assistant Dr. Deborah Kozik operated on Waylon seven days after he was born. Tabitha was later told that Dr. Plunkett was taking a leave of absence." Rainey told Angel, "Months went past and they lost another patient, who was a dear friend of mine, and it was pretty heavy in the unit at the time. Then soon after I guess they decided to stop doing the surgeries and review the entire program."

Angle was able to get some records from UK and reported they showed that "The number of children Dr. Plunkett operated on this year is down around 43 percent from two years ago." UK Trustee Dr. Charles Sachatello, a surgeon who sits on the Board of Trustees' health-care committee, told Angel, "I was not aware of that, and that was never announced at the Board of Trustees meeting." Sachatello told Angel that UK should merge its pediatric heart program with the one at the University of Louisville because of the high operational costs of such programs. (Read more)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sun gives police letter alleging schools' laxity about weapons, but honors request for anonymity

A newspaper in a Kentucky county that had one of the first mass school shootings gave police a letter it received from a student alleging lax enforcement of rules about weapons on campus, but refused to identify the student, who asked to remain anyonmous. The Paducah Sun gave the McCracken County Sheriff's Department a copy of the letter about Reidland High School on Monday "after a reporter called the department . . . although the name of the author was not included," the paper reported Tuesday in a non-bylined story.

Reidland High School
The story quoted from the letter: “Someone who sits in class with us, who has brought weapons twice ... has yet to be punished for anything.” It "does not mention the person’s name," the story says. "It adds that the person has plotted attack sites around the school area and asks why school administrators are afraid to enforce school rules. The letter does not contain any specific threats of violence, just the student’s observations."

After being told about the letter, police and school officials decided to close the school and the attached Reidland Middle School. “School will not be in session until the threat has been adequately investigated,” Sheriff Jon Hayden wrote on his department's Facebook page. The paper's story is here; the letter is here.

Reidland (A) and Heath (B) schools (Google map)
On Dec. 1, 1997, a student at a high school on the other side of Paducah fired on a group of students at a prayer meeting, killing three and injuring five. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was given life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years. "A federal appeals court panel is considering whether Heath High School gunman Michael Carneal should be allowed to take back his guilty plea and get a trial," Angela Hatton of WKMS in Murray reports.

The Wednesday, Dec. 19 Sun has a copy of the letter, a story about an unnamed teacher who says she prompted it, and a column from Editor Jim Paxton explaining the paper's handling of the matter: "Newspapers by statute in Kentucky have a right to protect the identity of their sources, just as law enforcement agencies do. Absent that ability, we would never be able to develop the type of information that is reported in today’s lead story about the school threat issue, information we believe most readers will agree sorely needs to see the light of day." Paxton said the paper asked the student's parents if he could speak to the sheriff's department if his confidentiality was protected. "The parents expressed reservations, noting their son is a juvenile. We advised investigators of the parents’ position, but said we would continue to try to broker a resolution that would allow investigators to speak to the student directly."

Paxton says a press release from the sheriff's department at 10:30 p.m. Monday "was at best disingenuous and at worst defamatory. The release was crafted in such a way as to make it appear that the newspaper had received a letter from an individual who had directly threatened the high school and we were refusing to tell authorities his name citing 'journalistic ethics.' The release didn’t say that specifically, but it was clearly intended to be interpreted that way, and it was." That release appeared to be the basis for a story by WPSD-TV, also owned by Paducah-based Paxton Media Group. The county school superintendent sent a similar message to school-district employees.

"The effect was as officials planned," Paxton writes. "People called to cancel subscriptions. Advertisers called threatening to pull out of our newspaper. Profane comments poured onto our Facebook page." And though the paper's First Amendment lawyer said it had an absolute right to withhold the student's name, "we continued working to broker a resolution, and later that morning, our source, his parents, and an adult employee of the school system who we learned was our source’s source agreed to meet here at the newspaper with Sheriff Hayden. While we were in the process of setting that meeting up, a sheriff’s detective showed up in our offices with grand jury subpoenas demanding that Executive Editor Duke Conover and yours truly appear in less than two hours before a grand jury along with the letter disclosing the identity of our source. (In what can only be described as a show of belligerence, the sheriff’s detective undertook to 'read' the subpoena to Conover in Conover’s office while Conover was engaged in a phone call. First, that’s hard to do, since subpoenas mostly have boxes and checkmarks on them. Second, legally, it has no effect. Subpoenas are simply supposed to be delivered, and sheriff’s deputies are well aware of that.)" Paxton, a lawyer, writes that the subpoenas were illegal and "purely an effort to intimidate a news organization. We doubt Kentucky’s attorney discipline board will smile on this exercise."

In the end, Paxton reports, "Our source and others familiar with this matter did meet in our offices with the sheriff, and as today’s lead story indicates, much was learned. Interestingly, some of what was learned was very unflattering to school administrators and others in the school system. Meanwhile, we as a newspaper remain puzzled by the scorched earth approach taken by local officials involved here." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Sheriff Hayden issued a press release Tuesday night saying that the alleged threat was a misinterpretation of two students' conversation about explosions in a video game, which had been investigated and cleared. "Had investigators been provided contact information sooner, this incident could have been cleared up much quicker," Hayden said.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Illinois' anti-eavesdropping law can't be used against those who record police, high court says

The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand an appellate-court ruling in Illinois that "The state's anti-eavesdropping law violates free-speech rights when used against people who tape law enforcement officers," the Chicago Tribune reports. "Opponents of the law say the right to record police is vital to guard against abuses." (Read more)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Judge rules U of L's hospital is public and subject to Open Records Act; it may appeal

The University of Louisville's hospital is a public entity, a Jefferson Circuit Court judge has ruled in a lawsuit filed to get access to the university's deals with other health providers.

Judge Martin McDonald ruled yesterday in favor of The Courier-Journal, WHAS-TV and the American Civil Liberties Union, noting that the university makes or approves all appointments to the hospital's board of directors. The university had argued that the board, and thus the hospital, was not a public agency under the state Open Records Act.

The hospital said it might appeal the ruling. McDonald gave it 30 days to give him the records being sought, along with arguments about why they should be exempt" under exceptions to the law, reports The C-J's Andrew Wolfson. "He gave the news organizations at the ACLU 20 days to respond to any claimed exemptions." The hospital has said revealing contracts would put it at a competitive disadvantage.

The suit began after the university refused to let the plaintiffs see records related to its proposed merger with Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare and Lexington-based St. Joseph Health Care System. Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the merger on grounds that a public hospital should not be bound by a religious organization's health-care policies. This month the hospital announced a new deal with KentuckyOne Health, which includes the Catholic system, but said reproductive services would not be affected. (Read more)

Federal judge keeps ban on contacting jurors but will contact them on behalf of Herald-Leader

U.S. District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove is allowing the Lexington Herald-Leader to contact certain jurors in the groundbreaking case of kidnapping and assault of a gay man in Harlan County, but he  declined to strike down a Kentucky federal-court rule against contacting jurors in criminal trials.

"Jason and Anthony Jenkins were charged with attacking the victim, Kevin Pennington, in April 2011 because of his sexual orientation," a hate crime, Bill Estep of the Herald-Leader recounts. "The Jenkins cousins were the first people in the nation tried under a section of the federal hate-crime law that makes it illegal to injure someone because of the victim's real or perceived sexual orientation."

The jury convicted the cousins on kidnapping and conspiracy charges Oct. 24 but acquitted them of the hate-crime charge. "That was a setback for the government in its first attempt to win a conviction at trial under the gay-bias section of the hate-crime law," Estep notes. "The Herald-Leader refrained from contacting jurors for comment on their reasoning in the decision because of a court rule."

The newspaper asked Van Tatenhove to strike down the rule as an unconstitutional infringement of its First Amendment right to gather news. The judge declined, but noting that the rule allows journalists to contact jurors with a judge's permission, said he would ask the jurors if they are willing to be interviewed and provide the names to the paper. (Read more)
Read more here:

Friday, October 19, 2012

AG: Cabinet hid too much information from Inez newspaper about case of 2-year-old who died

Attorney General Jack Conway has ruled that the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services violated the Open Records Act by withholding information about the death of a 2-year-old Prestonsburg boy whose aunt and uncle have been charged with killing him.

The Mountain Citizen, a weekly newspaper in Inez, asked for all information the cabinet had on Watson Adkins, whom the state had removed from his mother's home and placed in the custody of his maternal aunt, Gladys Dickerson of Prestonsburg. The boy was found unresponsive there in September 2011.

The cabinet "initially did not provide two previous unsubstantiated reports of abuse against Gladys and Jason Dickerson to the newspaper but later supplied the reports with much of the information redacted," reports Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The opinion said the cabinet could not redact some of that information, including the names of perpetrators involved in the unsubstantiated reports."

Conway said the cabinet also violated the records law "by failing to cite either state or federal law that allowed it to withhold or redact certain information," Musgrave writes, noting that the case is the latest "in a more that three-year legal battle between the media and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services over what can be released after a child is killed from abuse and neglect. . . . What information can be redacted or blacked out of those files is currently on appeal."

The cabinet has 30 days from Monday, the date of the open-records decision, to appeal it to circuit court.

Citizen Editor Gary Ball told Musgrave that he sought the information after hearing that the cabinet had been told the Dickersons were mistreating the boy and his four siblings. “I got heavily redacted information,” he said. “I wanted all records from the time that they were removed from the home to the time of the criminal charges.” He said the mother had taken photos of suspicious injuries to the children.

"Ball said that the cabinet had investigated two reports of alleged abuse against Gladys and Jason Dickerson before September 2011," Musgrave writes. "Ball received the reports from the cabinet but it’s difficult to tell why those reports were not substantiated." He told Musgrave, “I want the records that will show me how they made that determination that those reports were unsubstantiated.” (Read more)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

AG says Danville solons broke open-meeting law by deciding secretly to buy a building

UPDATE, Oct. 23: The city has appealed the decision to Boyle Circuit Court, The Advocate-Messenger reports.

The City of Danville violated the state Open Meetings Act by taking action in closed session to buy a building and failing to respond to a complaint about it from the local newspaper, Attorney General Jack Conway has ruled in a decision both sides received yesterday.

"The disputed action in an executive session took place July 23 during a City Commission meeting. There was no public vote regarding purchasing the building during open session that day," reports Stephanie Mojica of The Advocate-Messenger. "It wasn’t until Aug. 13 that commissioners publicly approved the purchase . . . a decision that has stirred some controversy, partially because Commissioner Ryan Montgomery’s father, Mike Montgomery, conducts business with the property’s now-former owner,  Mitchell Barnes of Lexington. On Aug. 13, commissioners said they had reached a 'consensus' during the July 23 executive session that allowed City Manager Ron Scott to move forward with plans to hire a bidder and secure the property through auction. However, a consensus is still a vote, according to the attorney general’s decision."

The commission had told the attorney general's office, "The Commissioners collectively stated to the City Manager that they could potentially approve of a purchase of the . . . building if the sale price was less than the appraised value" and that all of them supported the City Manager hiring "a professional bidder as its agent … so as not to showcase that it was the City bidding." The commission argued that it acted as the Florence City Council did when it agreed in closed session to settle a lawsuit, then approved the settlement at a later, open meeting. Conway's office said that didn't apply "because the appeal before us does not involve a settlement conference in litigation," and noted that "a commitment or promise to make a positive or negative decision" constitutes "taking action" under the open-meetings law. It also faulted the city for not responding to a follow-up complaint the Advocate-Messenger filed Sept. 14. For the decision, click here. For the story, go here.

Mount Olivet violated both open-meetings and open-records laws, attorney general rules

By Taylor Moak

The Mount Olivet City Council violated the Kentucky open meetings and open records acts in its actions surrounding special meetings and a request for documents, the attorney general’s office ruled in August.

The first attorney general’s decision about the council, which was released Aug. 24, said the council violated the Open Meetings Act for not complying with notice requirements before holding a special meeting on July 16.

The council also committed a violation for failing to issue until Aug. 8 a written response to two complaints made July 26, and it committed a violation if public business was discussed in an “admitted meeting of a quorum of members without proper notice,” according to the decision.

The second decision, released Aug. 30, said the council violated the Open Records Act when it did not respond in a timely manner to an open records request.

Tony Beach, a resident of Robertson County, where Mount Olivet is the county seat, filed the appeals with the attorney general’s office.

Beach said he had been attending the city council meetings to hear discussion of plans to annex a new school that is a few miles outside of the city limits. The proposed annexation would also include his home.

“I started going to the meetings because I don’t want to be within the city limits,” Beach said.

He said over the years, the city has not been run in an organized fashion.

Over the summer, he went to attend a meeting of the city council where plans to replace a vacant city council seat would be discussed.

But he said the special meeting wasn’t advertised, and he was told that it wasn’t a special meeting. He said he was allowed to stay at the meeting, but he filed a complaint after that meeting because the people of the city did not have an opportunity to attend the meeting.

When he asked for the minutes of the meeting, the council couldn’t produce them, Beach said.

In his July 26 request to the council, Beach asked for eight items, including the minutes from the July 16 and July 23 special meetings, and all emails, correspondence, minutes or notes from meetings pertaining to current or future annexation plans. Beach also requested the names of any news media that have requested to be notified of the council’s special meetings.

Beach said in an appeal letter that he filed with the Attorney General’s Office that he never received a written response to his request, but when he attended a council meeting on August 6, he was handed two of the eight items he requested without explanation.

W. Kelly Caudill, an attorney from Maysville, represents the city council. In his Aug. 13 response to the attorney general, Caudill said of the July 23 meeting that “some council members met for the purpose of introducing themselves to a prospective new council member who was interested in filling a vacancy on the council. That council and the mayor did not conduct any city business.”

Caudill said he advised the mayor and the council “that any time there is a quorum that they must comply with the Open Meetings Act and treat same as a special meeting providing at least 24 hours notice.”

In his response to Beach’s request, Caudill said the city council “must respectfully deny same as they are in the excess of what the statute requires.”

A worker at Caudill’s law firm said she spoke with Caudill and “he indicated that he has no comment.”

Beach said the attorney general’s decisions puts the city council “on notice that someone is watching” and his primary focus remains not being annexed into Mount Olivet.

“My biggest concern is being annexed into a city that doesn’t know how to be ran correctly,” Beach said.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Judge closes hearing in case involving mother accused of sexualizing 6-year-old at pageants

A judge in Campbell County closed a hearing in a high-profile child custody case Saturday and put a gag order on the mother, who had "claimed that her ex-husband was using [her daughter's] participation in child beauty pageants as a reason for the court to award him full custody," reports  of WXIX-TV. Family Court Judge Rick Woeste also ordered that 6-year-old Madisyn "Maddy" Verst and her mother could not participate in any pageants "until further notice," Murphy reports. The proceedings are to resume Aug. 31.

Maddy's "saucy shake and shimmy landed her on the cover of People magazine, with the headline asking, 'Gone Too Far?'," Murphy reports. A court-appointed psychologist said the mother, Lindsay Jackson, was sexualizing her daughter. Jackson denied that, saying the child's padded Dolly Parton outfit on the "Toddlers and Tiaras" TV reality show on TLC was "designed to represent our state. Dolly’s from Tennessee. . . . I shouldn’t be at risk of losing my child simply because she participates in a hobby that some people don’t like." (Read more) For a Fox News report and talking-heads debate aired before the recent hearing, click here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hustonville officials refuse to release text of proposed ordinances after first reading

Here's one we've never heard before: A city refusing to provide the text of proposed ordinances on which its city council has held first reading. It is happening in Hustonville, the small Lincoln County town on US 127 between Danville and Liberty, reports Ben Kleppinger of The Interior Journal of the county seat of Stanford:

"Hustonville City Council has passed first readings of five ordinances aimed at curtailing certain behaviors within city limits, but the city has refused to release the text of the ordinances to the public. The ordinances were read aloud by Mayor Marc Spivey at the city's Aug. 7 regularly scheduled meeting. City Attorney Carol Hill refused to give the weekly newspaper copies of the ordinances, claiming they are "preliminary documents," and City Clerk Rita Clem denied a written open-records request, saying "The Open Records Act only governs access to the existing records and not to records that will be created in the future."

Kleppinger reports, "Kentucky Press Association Attorney Jeremy Rogers, who specializes in open meetings and open records law, said there's no question ordinances that pass first reading are open record. Rogers said Hustonville's argument that the ordinances do not exist doesn't make any sense because they have all already received first readings. . . . There's nothing preliminary or private or secret about it. They've read it in an open meeting."

The newspaper is appealing denial of its open-records request to Attorney General Jack Conway. The ordinances deal with littering, illegal parking, jaywalking, wearing of masks and one that would ban "formation of any type of line and/or congregating on the sidewalks, streets or any other public property." (Read more)