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FOI audit shows problems with public access to information

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    News Media Update         INDIANA         Freedom of Information    

FOI audit shows problems with public access to information

  • A study by eight Indiana newspapers shows wide-ranging responses by government officials to public information requests and little improvement overall since 1997.

Oct. 28, 2004 — A threat of jail, a question about a public records requester’s political affiliation and a pledge that it would take “an act of God” for a public official to release a public document were among the responses to test of the state’s public records law by a coalition of Indiana newspapers.

Journalists from eight newspapers, posing as citizens, went into 92 county offices asking government employees for 368 public records, including crime logs and reports, public employee salaries and court files of sex offenders, the Associated Press reported.

Just 11 counties provided requested documents within 24 hours, showed the study, titled “State of Secrecy.” It mirrored a similar 1997 study by seven Indiana newspapers.

[In the new study, sheriffs were least likely to comply, providing 60 percent of requested logs and 43 percent of incident reports while county court clerks had the best response rate, providing the court files of sex offenders in all but five counties.

Under state law, citizens seeking public records need not identify themselves or their motives, but in at least 30 percent of the police records requests, the journalists were asked who they were, the AP reported. Among the investigation’s findings:

* A Wayne County auditor’s office employee asked whether a request for salary records came from a Democrat or a Republican.

* A Monroe County sheriff’s employee told a reporter computer software upgrades were needed to produce crime reports.

* Rush County Sheriff Jim Owens threatened to jail a reporter if he continued to “intimidate my staff.”

* One county worker said it would take “an act of God” for him to turn over the public document.

* A Cass County sheriff’s employees told a reporter that crime information was not released to the public except to victims and through the media.

Gov. Joe Kernan and Republican challenger Mitch Daniels called for better access to government documents Sunday in response to the audit, The Times of Northwest Indiana reported. Kernan said he would support a law requiring better information storage if that was the best way to balance a person’s privacy and the public’s right to know.

In 1997, only 40 of the state’s 92 sheriffs gave access to crime logs, with 20 turning over crime reports. The latest audit, in August, shows 55 county sheriffs providing their crime logs and 40 sheriffs turning over incident reports, The Times reported

The state’s public access counselor has handled more than 11,000 complaints and inquiries since the two-person office opened in June 1998, according to reports in The Indianapolis Star . Half of last year’s 2,700 cases came from the public, 37 percent from government officials and 13 percent from the media. There is no fine for officials who refuse to turn over public records in Indiana.

“You can go to the public access counselor and get them to side with you, but if the local agency wants to ignore them, they can do that,” Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana told The Star . “It’s a game of chicken, and these people are willing to meet you head-on.”

Porter County Auditor Sandra Vuko said she thinks the investigation was flawed because it did not balance public interests with privacy interests. Her office did not provide salaries for the county’s 650 workers because the records included employees’ Social Security numbers, which had to be removed from the list to protect them from identity theft. Blocking out the numbers would have taken time that her office could not spare, Vuko told The Times .

The newspapers involved in the study were: The Indianapolis Star , The Times of Northwest Indiana, The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, the South Bend Tribune , The Herald-Times of Bloomington, the Tribune Star of Terre Haute, The Star Press of Muncie and the Evansville Courier & Press .

CB

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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