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Surveys show agencies fail to comply with records laws

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  1. Freedom of Information
Surveys show agencies fail to comply with records laws 05/17/99 ROUNDUP--Following similar efforts in several states, surveys of government compliance…

Surveys show agencies fail to comply with records laws

05/17/99

ROUNDUP–Following similar efforts in several states, surveys of government compliance with records requests were released in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. The results of both surveys were similar to their predecessors, revealing the widespread failure of records custodians to release information as required by law.

Fourteen newspapers conducted the Pennsylvania survey, which was released in late April. In Rhode Island, fifteen students under the supervision of Brown University professor Ross Cheit were joined by volunteers from Common Cause/Rhode Island. The Rhode Island survey was also released in late April.

The Pennsylvania newspapers found that nearly one in three requests to see public records is denied. Requests for police and financial records were rejected more than 43 percent of the time. In all, 410 requests were made at 69 municipalities, 89 police departments and 118 school districts.

Among the worst offenders were law enforcement, with 76 percent of all requests denied. The state police refused 100 percent of all requests for copies of phone logs. Following the survey, state police commissioner Paul Evanko refused reporters’ requests for interviews.

In many cases, records requesters were asked to provide identification and reveal where they live. One unsuccessful requester even reported being shadowed by a police cruiser for several blocks after leaving a police department.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge told the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader that he was “astonished” by the survey’s results. “I was quite surprised to see how difficult it was for journalists to get information I thought was clearly open,” he said, adding that a broader public records law may be needed.

The 91-page Rhode Island survey followed up on a survey done the previous year. Only 22 percent of the police departments were “fully compliant” with the survey’s requests. Less than one-third of requests for municipal legal settlement terms were granted. However, school districts generally posted an 85-percent compliance rate, the survey found.

Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse defended the state’s police department. “They’re obviously not in full compliance with the law,” Whitehouse told The Providence Journal, “but from a technical point of view, they’re probably not violating the law.” State law is not clear on what must be released, Whitehouse explained.

Other states that have recently been the subjects of similar surveys include Florida, Indiana, New Jersey and Virginia.