|NMU||ALABAMA||Freedom of Information||Oct 1, 2001|
Governor directs journalists’ records requests through legal advisor
- The editor of the Mobile Register debunked the governor’s claim that the new procedure improves delivery of public records, describing the change as retaliation to an investigative reporter’s tough questions on state business.
Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman in September instituted a new screening process to provide reporters with public records, requiring all media requests to first go through the office of his legal advisor.
But the editor of The Mobile Register, which first learned of the new records policy days after the governor complained about the conduct of one of the newspaper’s reporters, described the measure as retaliation for tough reporting on state business.
“The governor’s office claims this is an effort to facilitate giving out records and that it should actually make it easier for the media to get records,” Editor Mike Marshall said. “That is, of course, nonsense. Before, we went to each state agency and were given records on the authority of whoever was in office at the time. Now we have to go through this central clearinghouse.”
Jim Buckalew, the governor’s chief of staff, instructed state department heads on Sept. 13 to send all media record requests directly to Ted Hosp, the governor’s legal advisor.
“Mr. Hosp will work with members of the media to ensure that any and all public records relevant to a specific request are provided in a timely manner,” Buckalew wrote.
The policy change came in the wake of reports of unbid contracts going to friends of the Siegelman administration. The Register, in particular, ran numerous stories and an in-depth series exploring the contracts.
The governor’s office, too, had complained about Eddie Curran, an investigative reporter at the Register and author of the series on government contracts, saying staff members would no longer talk to him. Specifically, they said Curran berated a press officer during a recent telephone conversation and peppered requests for records with numerous legal citations.
“My intuition is this, that our reporter must have asked them some questions that they were embarrassed to answer, so they looked for an excuse to deny him those records,” Marshall said.
Siegelman said the new procedure will “cut back red tape.” During a conference on constitutional reform on Sept. 26 in Birmingham, he said: “I don’t think it singles out anybody. It wasn’t intended to.”
Regardless of the reason for the policy, Marshall said that by directing records through Hosp’s office — he calls it “the choke point” — the governor effectively derails further research into government business.
Marshall said: “Making requests directly to the governor’s chief counsel precludes a lot of investigative work.”
© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press