Wednesday, March 30, 2011

AG says Bowling Green should have given paper names of applicants for commission seat

Attorney General Jack Conway has ruled that Bowling Green officials should not have kept secret the names of people who wanted the City Commission to appoint them to a vacant seat on the commission, which has since been filled.

The opinion was issued to the Bowling Green Daily News, which wanted the names before the seat was filled and appealed the denial to Conway. In its story, the newspaper highlighted the reasoning of Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver: “The public interest in the identities of persons seeking appointment to elective office is often greater than that of the public interest in the identities of persons seeking public employment,” which may be considered confidential.

The city argued that making the applicants' names and resumes public “may work to prevent others from submitting resumes should this process be followed again,” but the attorney general's office said the applicants “forfeited a greater measure of their personal privacy when they ‘threw their hats in the ring’.” For the story on Conway's decision, by the Daily News' Andrew Robinson, click here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Inmate wins one, loses one in open-records cases; AG reminds agency of its responsibilities

An inmate at the Kentucky State Reformatory at LaGrange was unfairly denied access to a record he requested, according to an opinion issued March 14 by the attorney general's office. The same inmate lost another appeal because the office found no evidence that the record he requested exists -- a common reason for denying open-records appeals. But his winning case reminded agencies they they may have to look in more than one place for records that are requested.

Uriah Pasha sought copies of reports related to an incident that resulted in his segregation from other inmates. The reformatory and the Justice Cabinet denied his request, saying no such reports existed in his institutional file. However, the attorney general's office found that the state's Corrections Policies and Procedures manual provides that an “alleged violation of rules and regulations shall be fairly processed,” and that the “inmate’s due process rights shall be fully protected,” and the cabinet later acknowledged that a corrections officer filed a report on the incident. In its decision, which has the force of law, the attorney general said Pasha is entitled to a copy.

The decision said the reformatory's "response was deficient insofar as it failed to acknowledge the existence of at least one arguably responsive record, and the cabinet only partially mitigated this error in its supplemental response. It is incumbent on KSR to conduct a search for responsive records that extends beyond Mr. Pasha’s institutional file and to provide him with any nonexempt responsive records that search yields. If the search yields no additional responsive records, it is incumbent on KSR to so advise Mr. Pasha and to provide a plausible explanation for the nonexistence of records contemplated by its own policies and procedures."

In the other appeal, the attorney general found no evidence that the records Pasha sought, a behavior control report supposedly written by a staff psychologist, existed. A public agency is not required by the Open Records Act to create records that do not exist to meet a citizen's request. Many inmate appeals are rejected on these grounds, but Pasha's successful appeal is a reminder that public agencies have a responsibility to look for records and, if they do not exist, explain why.

The text of any open-government decision by the attorney general is available via the link at the bottom of the KOG Blog.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Judge rules Passport managed-care plan for Medicaid is subject to Open Records Act

As Kentucky prepares to put more of its Medicaid program under a managed-care system to save money, a judge has ruled that the contractor running the program's only managed-care plan is a public agency subject to the state Open Records Act.

Ruling in a lawsuit filed by The Courier-Journal, Jefferson Circuit Judge Susan Schultz Gibson wrote, "Since Passport exists for the purpose of administering the Medicaid program on behalf of the Commonwealth, the sought records all appear to relate to Passport’s state-related operations."

Passport, which can appeal the ruling, declined to comment. A consortium of Louisville-area hospitals, physicians and other health care providers, it serves about 165,000 poor and disabled Medicaid patients in 16 counties in the Louisville region under a $740 million annual contract. The state administers the program but most of its money comes from the federal government.

"While it has been praised by lawmakers for providing good care and saving the state money, it came under fire last year after a critical audit by state Auditor Crit Luallen," Deborah Yetter writes for the Louisville newspaper. "The audit blasted Passport management for spending on meals, travel and lobbying, and it questioned the transfer of about $30 million in reserve funds to University Hospital and other physician groups and hospitals involved in Passport operations." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Family-services cabinet gets a runner-up national Black Hole Award for secrecy

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services' insistence on secrecy about deaths of childred for which it has responsibility has made it a runner-up in the Society of Professional Journalists' new Black Hole Award. SPJ says it created the award "to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know." The award went to the Utah Legislature, which excluded electronic records from the state open-records law.

SPJ says the cabinet "has embarked on a campaign of obfuscation aimed at preventing the public from learning the details about the death of a toddler under the cabinet’s supervision. . . . The infant died in May 2009 after drinking drain cleaner at what police have described as a methamphetamine lab." SPJ notes that the cabinet "has a blanket policy of refusing to disclose all information in child abuse and neglect cases" and quotes Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd, who said its bias in favor of confidentiality seems to be driven more by the culture of the agency, "which seeks to avoid public scrutiny," than by the law.

The cabinet failed to conduct an internal review of the death, as required by law. The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader asked Shepherd to require the cabinet to produce related records; most of what the cabinet produced was redacted, and the judge ordered it to return with the entire unredacted record so that he could decide what would be released. Then the cabinet issued emergency regulations with the force of law to restrict access to such records. The papers filed suit again, asking Shepherd to strike down the regulations and order the cabinet to release the records. The cabinet has petitioned to move the lawsuit to federal court, arguing that federal law prohibits the cabinet from releasing information about children who die in its care. SPJ asks, "What is more egregious than a state government refusing to provide answers to the people of the state about the death of a child in its custody?"

Obama administration failing to meet open government goals, Knight survey finds

The Obama administration is failing to fulfill its promise of improving Freedom of Information responsiveness by federal agencies, according to a Knight Open Government Survey by the National Security Archive, released March 13 for Sunshine Week.

In a news release, the Knight Foundation reported that fewer than half of the federal agencies have complied with a presidential memorandum Barack Obama signed in January 2009 instructing federal agencies to “usher in a new era of open government.”

The Knight Open Government Survey found that 49 of the 90 agencies had made concrete changes in their procedures to process requests for government records covered by the Freedom of Information Act. A year earlier, the number was 13. The news release said after the 2010 survey was released "The resulting national headlines sparked a new White House call to all agencies to show concrete change."

“At this rate, the president’s first term in office may be over by the time federal agencies do what he asked them to do on his first day in office,” commented Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funded the study. “Freedom of information laws exist to help all of us get the information we need for this open society to function. Yet government at all levels seems to have a great deal of trouble obeying its own transparency laws.”

Read the entire report here.

Sunshine Week is March 13-19

Sunshine Week, the annual event that reminds Americans of the virtue of open government, citizen access and oversight, and journalists' role in keeping citizens informed about their governments, is in progress. Promotional materials for Sunshine Week are donwnloadable at They include logos, editorial cartoons, other graphics and op-ed pieces on freedom of information and open government.

Monday, March 14, 2011

West Virginia Legislature sends governor a shield law that protects student journalists

Our adjoining state of West Virginia is on the verge of getting a reporter's privilege law, which journalists usually call a shield law. The state legislature passed the bill over the weekend and sent it to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The state has been one of several in which journalists can cite previous court decisions, but not a statute to avoid revealing sources to which they have promised confidentiality. The District of Columbia, Kentucky and 38 other states have shield statutes; only Wyoming has no reporter's privilege in its Constitution, court decisions or statutes.

"The measure provides West Virginia reporters with a qualified reporter's privilege to refuse to disclose confidential sources, and documents that could identify confidential sources, in civil, criminal, administrative and grand jury proceedings," says the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. With on exception, the law does not protect unpaid journalists; it defines "reporter" as someone who gathers and disseminates information to the public "for a portion of the person's livelihood."

The exception is that the law does cover student journalists. "This language puts West Virginia at the very forefront of the country in recognizing the value of student journalism and the importance of protecting students who are increasingly doing professional-caliber work," said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. For background from the Reporters Committee on West Virginia case law and the bill's path through the Legislature, click here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

States can't reveal drug costs because federal law makes them secret; Montana governor blames drug lobby, Ky. contractor

When Montana journalists asked Gov. Brian Schweitzer to reveal the prices the state pays for drugs in government health care programs, he said he wanted to tell them, but had to refuse because federal law keeps the information secret. Congress is "bought and paid for" by drug manufacturers, said Schweitzer, a conservative Democrat with a maverick streak. "Congress has created a system so that even the states, which buy tens of millions of dollars worth of these drugs, have no idea what we pay on a per-unit basis."

"Actually, Schweitzer does know what the state pays — but, before acquiring the information last summer, had to have his chief counsel sign a written agreement not to disclose it publicly," Mike Dennison of the Billings Gazette reports. "Schweitzer said the drug industry wants to keep secret the rebates it gives to states buying drugs for public programs, because it doesn't want regular retail customers to know how much more they're paying for drugs."

Schweitzer obtained the information last summer when he was trying to compare what the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor and disabled was paying for drugs compared to the cost in Canada. Montana news outlets argued that the state open-records law requires him to release "documents in his possession that list public money paid out or received by the state," Dennison reports. But the governor's chief legal counsel "said federal law bars disclosure of the information requested by the news organizations, and that federal law pre-empts Montana's open-records laws."

Also, "Magellan Medicaid Services, the Virginia-based contractor that negotiates additional drug rebates for the state Medicaid program, also claimed that the rebate information is a trade secret protected from public disclosure," Dennison reports. MMS, which works for several states including Kentucky, said revealing the information would hamper its ability to compete with other companies doing the work." It seems to us that if all such information from all states were released, that wouldn't be a problem.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Let's observe Sunshine Week March 13-19

It's time to plan your observance of Sunshine Week, the annual event that reminds Americans of the virtue of open government, citizen access and oversight, and journalists' role in keeping citizens informed about their governments. Today we saw a new way to make readers, listeners and viewers remember it.

"It may be just a coincidence but the combination is apropos: Sunshine Week begins Sunday, March 13, the same day that Daylight Saving Time returns," the Arkansas Publishers Association notes in its latest Arkansas Publisher Weekly. Perhaps Sunshine Week could be promoted in conjunction with the annual reminder to move clocks forward.

Sunshine Week has coincided with the start of DST since a change in the federal time law a few years ago. The week has been built around national Freedom of Information Day, March 16, the birthday of James Madison, our fourth president and author of the First Amendment.

Promotional materials for Sunshine Week are donwnloadable at They include logos, editorial cartoons, other graphics and op-ed pieces on freedom of information and open government.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

AG tells Retirement to give local watchdog data about Rockcastle County magistrates' benefits

The Kentucky Retirement Systems violated the state Open Records Act when it refused to confirm the eligibility of local-government lawmakers for state retirement benefits, the attorney general's office ruled in a decision last week.

The opinion upheld an appeal by Michael Sheliga of Rockcastle County, a local government watchdog who had asked for "records verifying the eligibility of local officials to participate in the systems," and the numbers of Rockcastle County magistrates who had received benefits and claimed full-time work that makes them eligible for benefits, but not their names, the decision said. "It is our understanding that county officials, usually the county treasurers, are required to submit monthly sworn statements to Retirement certifying that employees, including magistrates, have, in fact, worked 100 hours."

The systems had denied the request, on the basis of a law requiring individual retirement accounts to remain confidential. That applies to a record "even if it does not identify a specific member," the agency argued on appeal. It also contended that disclosing the records would pose "a substantial likelihood of member identification." In negotiations with Sheliga, the agency refused to give him records with personal identfying information redacted, and on appeal claimed it was not subject to the Open Records Act.

The attorney general's office, in the decision written by Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, rejected all those arguments. It said the law makes confidential only "specific data regarding a current, former, or retired member," and "is not intended to cloak all other records maintained by Retirement in secrecy." It said that while Sheliga "muddied the water" by giving Retirement the names of officials whose eligibility he wanted to confirm, an open-records request "should not require the specificity and cunning of a carefully drawn set of discovery requests, so as to outwit narrowing legalistic interpretations by the government," in the words of a Rhode Island court decision cited by the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2008.

The retirement agency has 30 days from the date of the decision, Feb. 21, to appeal to Franklin Circuit Court.