By Colman Herman, contributing writer, CommonWealth magazine
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick talks a good game when it comes to the need for transparency in government, but the reality is that he does a lot of things to limit access to information. Here are some recent examples.
I asked the governor’s office to allow me to come to the State House to review Patrick’s emails for a ten-month period. They wanted a whopping $9,120 to do that. Imposing exorbitant fees on records requesters is a common ploy public officials use to keep documents from seeing the light of day.
Along with other members of the press, I recently requested copies of the itemized bills for the state-owned cellphone used by Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray to determine whom he had been talking to when he demolished his state-owned Crown Vic while driving 108 mph in the early morning hours of Nov. 2. For a time, Murray offered up ever-changing accounts of what happened, but he finally admitted he fell asleep at the wheel and was not wearing his seat belt.
Patrick’s legal office provided the cellphone bills, but without itemization. Deputy Legal Counsel E. Abim Thomas said the governor’s office receives only summary invoices from Verizon. It used to get itemizations, but when Patrick came into office in Jan. 2007, he changed the practice, and the administration now receives Verizon bills that give no detail about incoming and outgoing calls.
“Changing to summary invoices streamlined our billing process and helped achieve administrative efficiencies,” Patrick’s press secretary, Kimberly Haberlin, told Enterprisenews.com.
I asked Haberlin not once but twice for the specifics of how changing to summary billing streamlined the billing process and helped achieve administrative efficiencies. She never responded.
Changing to summary invoices allows Patrick to keep the prying eyes of the press at bay. The governor could ask Verizon to provide the itemizations, but he refuses, and Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees the public records law, says he doesn’t have to. I called the Verizon Wireless 800 number and was told it costs $1.99 to get an itemized bill for a phone and it is free online.
I also recently asked the Patrick administration for email correspondence, phone logs, and visitor logs that show Patrick’s contacts with three honchos in President Barack Obama’s executive office: David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Jim Messina.
Thomas provided the emails and the phone logs – which were unrevealing – but said the administration does not keep visitor logs. Here again is a practice designed to keep the press from getting into Patrick’s business.
In doing the work of the people, Gov. Patrick should heed the words of one of his best buds, President Obama: “The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it.”