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PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees

Yakima Herald-Republic editorial, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees - Yakima Herald-Republic editorial 2007

From the Online News

Published on Friday, June 15, 2007

Agency learns an expensive lesson about public records

At a time when exemptions from the state's Public Records Act are undergoing a long-overdue review for relevance comes an emphatic reminder to public agencies that the spirit and letter of the law are still in effect -- and enforced.

The state Department of Corrections has just found that out the hard way after being slapped with $541,000 in fines and legal fees for withholding records. It's the largest penalty for violating the voter-approved law since it went into effect Jan. 1, 1973.

And wouldn't you know it, Corrections was nailed by a prison inmate who was released from a 17-year murder sentence in 2004.

According to The Seattle Times, Paul Wright, who was editor of the newspaper Prison Legal News while behind bars, filed a pair of requests with the department in 2000 for records related to medical errors and discipline against prison medical providers. The department released more than 1,000 pages but deleted so much information -- including the names of disciplined employees -- that Wright sued in 2001.

The department convinced a Superior Court judge and an appeals court that releasing the names would jeopardize the staff members and undermine prison safety. But the state Supreme Court in 2005 dismissed that argument and ordered the department to release the names and to pay fines and attorney fees dating to Wright's original request.

In the meantime, after six years of dragging its bureaucratic feet, the department succeeded in driving the amount of the fines and fees to the record lofty height in a settlement filed Friday in Thurston County Superior Court.

The agreement includes an admission that the agency destroyed 19 of the documents sought by Prison Legal News. That act, which the department called inadvertent, added nearly $50,000 to the award.

And taxpayers should be outraged at the department. They'll ultimately wind up paying the bill, according to Michele Earl-Hubbard, Wright's attorney.

Her firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, which also represents The Seattle Times, was awarded $341,000 in fees and costs. The settlement awards Prison Legal News $200,000 in fines.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature approved a bill that will set up a "Sunshine Committee" to review and recommend repeal or retention of the growing number of exemptions from the public records portion of the state Public Disclosure Act -- about 300 since it was enacted. The review should be a major help in ensuring that any exemptions to the public's right to know are kept to a minimum and necessary.

The new committee must review each public disclosure exemption and come up with a recommendation as to whether it should be continued, modified, scheduled for termination review at a future date -- or terminated outright.

With that in mind, we cite again the preamble to the Public Disclosure Act, a no-nonsense statement of public policy:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.

The state Department of Corrections just had that lesson driven home, dollar by dollar -- 541,000 times. Other public agencies should take notice.

* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Michael Shepard, Sarah Jenkins and Bill Lee.