Federal appeals court orders release of government official’s sick leave records
CALIFORNIA — The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) in mid-February ordered the release of sick leave records of a relatively high-ranking government official. Disclosure would not be a “clearly unwarranted” invasion of personal privacy the court said.
The court said the public’s interest in knowing whether sick leave is being abused to allow for inappropriate paid vacations outweighs any privacy interest of the official and it ordered release of the records under the Freedom of Information Act to Mark Dobronski.
Dobronski, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is president of the American Private Radio Association, and writes a president’s column for APRA News, a monthly newsletter focusing on the Federal Communications Commission and its personnel.
In 1991 he received a tip that Jennifer Bush, then the assistant bureau chief of the FCC’s Private Radio Bureau in Washington D.C., had been claiming sick leave in order to take paid vacations.
In April 1991 Dobronski asked the FCC for Bush’s sick leave records since 1989 and the FCC denied them saying they were exempt under the FOI Act’s privacy exemption (Exemption 6). He sued the agency for the records in August 1991 in Federal District Court in Phoenix.
After viewing the records in chambers, the judge ordered them released in June 1992. Except for her Social Security number, Bush’s sick leave slips contained no information of a private nature, he said. The government appealed.
The appeals panel ruled that any citizen has a right to investigate “whether government officials abuse their offices and the public fisc” by improper use of sick leave. The public has a strong interest in uncovering corruption such as payroll padding, it said. Although government employees may have a “nominal” privacy interest in the dates and times they took sick leave, it would not outweigh the public interest in disclosure of official misconduct, the court said.
The court rejected the FCC’s contention that it could uncover sick leave abuses better than Dobronski could through its own investigations.
(Dobronski v. FCC; Counsel: Harry Friedlander, Phoenix, Ariz.)