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

The Columbian, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees - The Columbian 2007

The Columbian

In our view: This Law's for You

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Case of prison inmate’s search for public records law is good for us all

If anyone wants an example of how Washington’s Public Disclosure Act is there for “the little guy” as well as for news reporters, lobbyists and political activists who navigate state and local government for a living, this might be it.

Who could be more of “a little guy” than a prison inmate? But it is inmates who are beneficiaries of a settlement last Friday in a Thurston County (Olympia) Superior Court case. But so, too, are all Washington residents who care what their governments are doing. That means every level of government short of federal, from fire districts to city hall to the Legislature.

That’s the up side. The down side is that when governments do try to dodge the disclosure laws, which happens more than you’d think, and they lose court cases because of it, the taxpayers foot the bill.

That’s what’s happening in this case, with the state Department of Corrections agreeing to pay $541,000 for withholding public records for five years. This is the largest financial award ever to result from the law, which spells out daily financial fines for bottling up government records that are supposed to be open to the public.

A Seattle publication called Prison Legal News, edited by an inmate named Paul Wright, was trying to get records from the state for stories about medical care in Washington’s prisons. Specifically, Wright was seeking written records about medical errors and records of discipline for prison medical providers.

In one case, The Seattle Times reported, Wright was probing the death of inmate Charles Snipes who died in his cell at the Monroe prison after complaining of breathing problems. In another case, husband-wife physician assistants were fired in 1994 for gross incompetence.

“We knew medical care in prison was bad,” Wright was quoted in The Times. “And we knew their system of medical discipline was ineffective. It’s one thing to know it; it’s another thing to have the documents to prove it.”

Wright requested the records in 2000 and was given 1,000 pages of documents. But the department had blacked out much of them, claiming that the redacted information was exempt under the law as a privacy matter. Wright sued and the case reached the state Supreme Court, which ruled the Department of Corrections had gone overboard on redacting information. That set the stage for Friday’s settlement.

Prison Legal news “won” $200,000 in fines, and its legal firm in the case, Davis Wright Tremaine, which also represents The Columbian, is getting $341,000 in fees and costs.

As The News Tribune of Tacoma said in an editorial after the agreement, “Wright is not a sympathetic character; he was then doing 17 years for felony murder. His Prison Legal News was hardly a prestige publication; most people had never heard of it. But — the law’s the law.”