Mayor hit with 'very rare' fine over records violation

Ahnalese Rushmann | Freedom of Information | Feature | March 11, 2009

The city of New Orleans committed a "flagrant violation of the law" and must pay nearly $7,000 in penalties for ignoring a local TV station's public records request for nearly two months, a judge ruled last week.

Mayor Ray Nagin and communications director Ceeon Quiett "avoided their responsibility to comply with the [Louisiana] Public Records Act by simply ignoring" a request for documents made by Lee Zurik of WWL-TV, said Judge Rosemary Ledet of the Parish of Orleans Civil District Court. In her March 4 judgment, Ledet imposed a maximum $100 per-day fine for the periods of Dec. 3 to Jan. 28 and Jan. 4 to Feb. 18, excluding weekends and holidays.

It is "very rare" for fines to be levied against records law violators in Louisiana, said one of Zurik's attorneys, Mary Ellen Roy.

The same can be said elsewhere in the country; a New Jersey appellate court, last November, overturned a rare fine against a public official for violating the state's open records law.  But more promising for records requesters, courts in Washington state and Missouri have recently upheld such fines.

Roy called the ruling "significant" in sending a message to the local government about public records law compliance: "In recent years, the city has not been very forthcoming or prompt with public records requests." 

Lori Mince, outside counsel to The Times-Picayune, said the state's public records act is one of the best for journalists because officials are expected to respond to requests so quickly, although the city rarely adheres to that time frame.

"In theory, you should never have to wait more than three days to inspect a public record," she said.

Zurik had asked in December for e-mail and calendars handled by Nagin and Quiett.  The court  on Feb. 17 ordered the city to turn over Nagin's 2008 appointments calendar and the reporter received a heavily redacted calendar the following day. That led Roy and Dan Zimmerman, Zurik's other attorney, to file a motion asking the court to hold the defendants in contempt of court.

Even though the calendar and only 15 or so of the requested e-mail messages have been turned over, Roy pointed out that Ledet ordered the city to preserve e-mail and electronic calendars in accordance with the state law.

The court also ordered Nagin and Quiett to search their personal computers for work-related e-mail, which they would be required to produce if found, according to the court order. Ledet later declined to hold the city officials in contempt of court, which New Orleans City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields claimed was a victory for the city, The Associated Press said.