In response to an administrative appeal filed by a Reporters Committee attorney, a district attorney in Oregon has ordered a county economic development department to disclose public records requested by the Malheur Enterprise, an important victory for the newspaper that could help shed light on a multi-million dollar infrastructure project.
The Enterprise filed a series of public records requests last October as part of its ongoing investigation into the inherent tension between the public and private roles of an Oregon state legislator involved in economic development projects as both the director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department and the owner of a private development company.
When it appeared that $26 million in taxpayer dollars might subsidize a rail shipping center project in Malheur County, the Enterprise requested emails, reports and federal grant applications, among other records, from MCED to determine the project’s financial viability, the public’s return on its investment, and to ensure that “no one behind closed doors was cutting deals to benefit private interests over public interest,” said Les Zaitz, the paper’s editor and publisher.
The MCED took 85 days to respond to the paper’s records request, producing 65 pages of documents, many of which were unlawfully redacted. The Enterprise challenged the county’s response in two petitions, the second filed by Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Ellen Osoinach in January.
“The local officials had sort of become tone deaf to appeals from a nagging Enterprise,” Zaitz said. “I judged that it was going to be a prudent strategic move for us to bring in legal talent to make clear just how seriously we took these matters.”
Osoinach and the Enterprise urged Malheur’s district attorney to order MCED to immediately release the requested records in fully unredacted form and waive all fees imposed by the agency.
“MCED has made no showing that disclosure would harm the public interest,” Osoinach wrote in the petition. “Nor could it: the public’s interest is entirely in favor of disclosure of these records.”
The district attorney agreed.
In a Feb. 5 opinion, District Attorney David M. Goldthorpe concluded that the Oregon Public Records exemptions the MCED cited in defense of the redactions did not apply and ordered the agency to disclose all of the requested records without redactions. The district attorney also sanctioned the agency for failing to respond to the request in a timely manner, waiving all fees in connection with the production of the records.
Zaitz said he would encourage smaller newsrooms to take advantage of what the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative can provide. “Not only does it make your case stronger, but it also signals to other public officials in your state that, no, the press is not going to back down,” he said. “We’re not going to take no for an answer. We are going to stand up and safeguard the public’s rights.”
Less than a week into analyzing the records, Zaitz said he already anticipates at least three stories in the Enterprise’s near future.
“Particularly for small media markets, this sort of work is really challenging,” Zaitz said. “It is impossible to do this without getting your hands on the records, but if we don’t do it, nobody else will. And you know, in small towns in Ohio, or Louisiana or Colorado, this is important work, not just for the press, but for the communities. That can’t get lost in all this.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo courtesy of Malheur Enterprise