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R.I. ACLU: AG rarely brings files lawsuits over public records violations

By Steven Brown, executive director, Rhode Island ACLU

Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) gives the attorney general the power to sue agencies for violating the statute. But don’t hold your breath. Between 1999 and June 2012, the attorney general’s office filed lawsuits against public bodies on only six occasions, less than 4 percent of the time after finding that violations of the law had been committed. That is one of the findings of a report the ACLU of Rhode Island issued this week.

Even the most blatant violations of the statute rarely led to legal action by the attorney general. In one recent instance, the same public body – the Town of North Providence – was found to have violated APRA six separate times within a two-year period, yet even after the sixth violation, the attorney general refused to find that the town had engaged in a “knowing and willful” violation that warranted seeking penalties under the law.

We also found that most of the violations by public bodies involved ignoring basic obligations of the law, such as failing to respond to requests within the required time period, neglecting to notify requesters of their appeal rights, or charging unreasonable fees for the inspection and copying of records. That is, the violations did not involve arcane questions of statutory interpretation or complicated disputes over whether a record might legitimately be exempt from disclosure. There was simply no excuse for the violations.

Under recent amendments to APRA, the standard of proof has been lessened so that “reckless” violations of the law can now be punished. In order to promote respect for and compliance with APRA, it is essential that the attorney general make use of the statute’s strengthened penalty provisions to seek fines against public bodies that engage in clear violations. It is insufficient to issue findings of wrongdoing with no further repercussions when the violations should never have occurred in the first place. A more vigorous response is necessary in order to help reverse a culture of secrecy that seems to pervade too many government agencies. The public’s right to know demands nothing less.