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ACLU Sues Governor for “Knowing and Willful” Violation of Open Records Law

Posted: August 20, 2008|Category: Open Government

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The R.I. ACLU today filed a lawsuit charging Governor Donald Carcieri with a “knowing and willful” violation of the Access to Public Records Act, and seeking imposition of a $1,000 fine against him for the violation. The suit, filed in R.I. Superior Court by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Kathleen Managhan, argues that the Governor has failed to turn over records that are clearly public under the law.

Last December, a major snowstorm hit the state when Governor Carcieri was out of the country. Traffic gridlock left some school children stranded on buses for hours. Upon his return, Governor Carcieri announced that Major General Robert Bray, head of the National Guard, would be in charge should similar situations occur in the future. The announcement prompted numerous concerns as to whether it was proper or constitutional for the Governor to give such authority to Bray.

In response, the ACLU filed an open records request in March, asking the Governor for copies of any documents that, among other things, set out the chain of command for state governance in his absence, described the powers given Maj. Gen. Bray in his absence, and that imposed any limits on those powers.

The Governor’s executive counsel, Kernan King, responded by turning over only one document: a news release issued by the Governor that attempted to respond to the questions raised in the media about this controversy. King alleged that the only other records responsive to the ACLU’s request were emails that were exempt from public disclosure because they were “internal documents that were created for internal purposes . . . not intended to be publically [sic] disclosed, nor have they been publically [sic] disclosed.” The ACLU filed an administrative appeal of this decision with the Governor, but he refused to turn over any additional documents.

The ACLU lawsuit seeking fines against the Governor notes that, despite the explanation given about “internal” emails, the Governor’s own news release contained a direct quote from an email his office had sent to the Providence Journal. In addition to a civil fine, the suit seeks a court order requiring release of all other responsive documents in the Governor’s possession, and an award of attorney fees.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown called the blanket denial of records “the Governor’s latest lackadaisical approach to open government in his administration.” Brown noted that just last month, the Governor vetoed a bill passed overwhelmingly by the General Assembly that would have strengthened the open records law in various respects.

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