Attorney General Reverses Former AG, Releases Documents in Google Settlement Fund Case

Posted: May, 29, 2019

The ACLU of Rhode Island today announced a major development in its R.I. Supreme Court appeal on behalf of former House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, whose access to documents pertaining to former Attorney General (AG) Peter Kilmartin’s expenditure of more than $50M in funds from the “Google settlement” was stymied by thousands of questionable redactions that he made in response to her Access to Public Records Act request.

In a letter sent yesterday to ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger, the Attorney General’s office indicated they had reviewed all of the redacted documents initially provided Morgan and that were the subject of the court appeal, and were now making public many of those documents in unredacted form. The new AG, Peter Neronha, also agreed to refund $3,750 in copying and retrieval costs that Morgan had been required to pay for some of the documents last year. 

Former Attorney General Kilmartin had used this case, which Morgan filed pro se, to argue that any government document constituting a “memorandum” was exempt from disclosure under APRA. That included the complete black-out of a memo dealing with the purchase – using Google settlement funds – of “lapel pins and challenge coins” for the AG’s staff. In a reversal of that position, Assistant AG Kathryn Sabatini said in the letter to Labinger that all memoranda were being released. Sabatini also indicated that all purchase order and invoice numbers were also being disclosed. The former AG had redacted those numbers for alleged security reasons, even though the state Department of Administration always requests, and sometimes requires, those numbers in order to retrieve bids and contracts for the public. The redaction of those numbers had made it virtually impossible for Morgan to track the purchases that had been made with the Google funds.

In December 2018, without explaining her reasoning, Superior Court Judge Melissa Long upheld Kilmartin’s redactions, prompting the court appeal on Morgan’s behalf. Shortly after the appeal was filed, the new AG asked for time to re-examine the redactions that Kilmartin’s office had made in responding to Morgan’s open records request.

After the ACLU and Morgan have a chance to review the thousands of revised records that have now been released, they will consider whether the court appeal needs to proceed. 

For years, open government groups have complained that although the Office of the Attorney General is the agency responsible for overseeing and enforcing APRA, it has more often been a hindrance than a help to open records requesters, and has repeatedly undermined APRA through its actions and advisory opinions.

Responding to the AG office’s letter, ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “I am hopeful that the Attorney General’s concrete actions in this case mark the beginning of a steady departure from those of his predecessor in addressing open records issues.  The stakes for accountability and transparency in our government are too high otherwise.”

Cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger added: “I commend RI Attorney General Neronha for thoroughly reviewing these important records and unmasking thousands of pages of information hidden by the previous administration.  Clearly Rep. Morgan and the ACLU of RI were correct in challenging former AG Kilmartin’s reflexive response to hide government workings from the public.¬”

More information about the case, including the letter sent by the AG’s office, can be found here.