Saturday, August 27, 2011

News outlets are less inclined to take legal action for open government, but citizens are becoming more active, national survey finds

"While a lack of resources has made news organizations increasingly less inclined to file freedom-of-information lawsuits, citizens have a growing interest in government transparency and are becoming more active in asserting their right to government information," the Media Law Resource Center and the National Freedom of Information Coalition report after an informal, online survey conducted Aug. 9-15. It confirmed continuation of a trend first noticed in 2009.

"If ordinary citizens are becoming more aware of their access rights, and more assertive regarding them, it is indeed a reason to be gratified," said Ken Bunting, executive director of NFOIC. "However, if news organizations are trending toward being less gung-ho in an area once regarded as a matter of responsibility and stewardship, there is the frightening potential that journalism could suffer, as could the health of our democracy." For the NFOIC release and links to the study documents, click here.

After the 2009 survey, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation created the Knight FOI Fund to pay initial expenses and fees for open-government lawsuits that the fund considers worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

U of L physicians' group drops open-records appeal, but C-J may still not get records

An organization representing University of Louisville doctors who were trying to keep their financial records private dropped its lawsuit appealing an adverse open-records decision Tuesday. In April, Attorney General Jack Conway ruled that University of Louisville Physicians Inc. is a public agency and, as such, is subject to the Kentucky Open Records Act. Conway's opinion was requested by The Courier-Journal.

Last November, state Auditor Crit Luallen released a scathing audit of Passport, which provides managed care for 165,000 Medicaid patients in Jefferson and 15 surrounding counties. The audit accused the organization of "wasteful spending, conflicts of interest and the questionable transfer of $30 million in Medicaid funds to organizations represented on Passport's board, including University Physician Associates," The Courier-Journal's Tom Loftus reports. Because of the audit, the newspaper asked for financial records from University Physicians Associates and University of Louisville Physicians Inc., which is the successor to University Physicians Associates. They refused to hand over the records, and Conway's decision followed.

Though the attorney general determined the organization should be subject to the open-records law, and the doctors' lawsuit has been dismissed, giving Conway's opinion the force of law, The Courier-Journal may not receive the records it has asked for. In its notice of dismissal, University of  Louisville Physicians stated it could change "its structure and function in the future which it believes may alter its status as a public agency."

"We are still forming our final structure and function," Diane Patridge, ULP's vice president for marketing and communications, told Loftus. "Once we're up and fully established we may appeal this current determination." Curiously, "Partridge also said that ULP has no records to release to the newspaper as a result of the dismissal of the case," because it has no employees – even though it was incorporated in March 2010. "She said University Physicians Associates . . . has handled all financial matters and paperwork for ULP to date," Loftus reports.

“This case is another piece of a puzzle,” Courier-Journal attorney Jon Fleischaker said. “It’s another step to try to make sure there’s more transparency at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and University Medical Center.” (Read more)

"Sounds like a shell game with shell corporations," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Series on questionable disability payments in Lexington led to closure of records involved

Sometimes journalism based on public records prompts government officials to hide the records to prevent further journalism about them.

In 2005, the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed "a high rate of disability pensions among Lexington police officers and firefighters. The stories named pensioners with allegedly severe physical ailments who remained competitive athletes or who returned to the public payroll for new jobs similar to their old ones," John Cheves writes for the newspaper.

"Change came almost immediately. But not to the system doling out millions of dollars in disability pensions every year. Rather, the public no longer has access to many city records the newspaper used to report its stories. Police and fire unions successfully lobbied the General Assembly in 2006 to exempt those documents from the Kentucky Open Records Act." (Read more)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Kentucky looks like only state that denies access to recordings made by police-cruiser cameras

Kentucky appears to be the only state that denies public access to recordings made by cameras in police cruisers. Scott Wartman of The Kentucky Enquirer discovered that this week as he followed up on the guilty plea by Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank for driving under the influence.

"Open-records laws across the country compiled by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press show that only in Kentucky is the public not allowed to view video of DUI traffic stops," Wartman writes. "First Amendment experts say they don't know of any other state with an exemption for DUI videos," and some think the law "raises constitutional issues and violates the public's right to know." Making cruiser recordings available "serves as an important check on police abuse," David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told Wartman.

The law was passed in 1984 with major changes to Kentucky's DUI law. The sponsor of the bill, then Sen. Henry Lackey, told Wartman that he didn't know why. "I don't remember anyone bringing that issue up," said Lackey, now deputy state aviation commissioner. Jon Fleischaker, attorney for the Kentucky Press Association, told Wartman, "Although I don't know for certain, my guess is it was done out of some misguided sense of privacy and some concern for how the thing could be used." He said the law could be challenged on constitutional grounds if a recording is used in a case. "Let's say I'm a defendant who is wrongfully accused and I want to show the public the tape," he said. "Why shouldn't I be able to do that?"