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Newspaper wins access to settlement agreements

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    NMU         NEW MEXICO         Freedom of Information    

Newspaper wins access to settlement agreements

  • Appeals court decision is one of the first to say that governmental agencies’ settlement agreements are public records under state law.

July 10, 2003 — A New Mexico appeals court affirmed that a county must release settlement agreements and rejected multiple arguments by the county that the agreements were exempt from immediate disclosure under the state’s open records law.

The Las Cruces Sun-News had requested settlement agreements between Dona Ana County and former inmates of the county detention center. The county agreed on July 3 not to appeal the June 11 decision requiring release of the more than $2 million settlements with the female inmates, who alleged they were sexually abused by detention center officers, newspaper attorney Marty Esquivel said.

“It’s significant,” Esquivel said. “It’s the first published decision that states that settlement agreements are public records.”

The county had acknowledged that the documents were public information, but claimed it could withhold them temporarily under three exemptions to the state’s open records law concerning insurance, attorney-client privilege and the operation of other laws requiring confidentiality. The county also appealed the district court’s award of attorney’s fees to the newspaper, which the appeals court also affirmed.

A three-judge panel said the public’s interest in the immediate release of information outweighed any public interest the county claimed would be served by withholding the information.

“One by one the court of appeals shot down every excuse they had to offer. Really, there was no reason for this to go on for so long,” Esquivel said.

The newspaper made its first request for a settlement agreement in September 1999, when three other civil lawsuits by former inmates were pending and two others had been settled. The newspaper first received copies of the settlement agreements on June 16.

“The core interest here is for the public to be advised of wrongdoing with respect to government agencies,” Esquivel said.

(Board of Commissioners of Dona Ana County v. Las Cruces Sun-News; Media counsel: Marty Esquivel, Dines, Gross & Esquivel, Albuquerque, N.M.) KH

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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