Tom Horne Pimps Bill Restricting Access to Public Records
Now why would Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne want to make it difficult and costly for reporters and regular citizens to obtain public records?
Given the trouble Horne's gotten himself into regarding public records requests to his office -- resulting in an FBI investigation, two county attorneys concluding that Horne broke campaign finance laws, and a recent hearing before an administrative law judge who may fine Horne as much as $1.2 million -- I think I know the answer.
Still, I was intrigued to find that Horne had no less than three staffers down at the state House Technology and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday to observe the discussion on a strike-everything amendment to House Bill 2419, submitted by the committee's chair, Representative David Stevens.
The proposed language would allow public bodies to begin charging for the "labor" involved in gathering public records in response to requests, with the first four hours being free.
Currently, government entities only are allowed to charge for the copies they create. If you inspect public records in person and bring a portable scanner or take photos with a cell phone camera, you cannot be refused or charged.
In December, Horne even signed an opinion stating as much.
"The purpose of Arizona's public records law is to allow members of the public open access to inspect public records," reads the opinion. "This purpose would be hindered by imposing fees on members of the public who travel to a public office solely to inspect a public record."
And yet, signed in to speak on behalf of HB 2419 was Horne's director of legislative affairs Art Harding.
The AG's public information officer Stephanie Grisham was present as well. I'm told the AG's legislative liaison Brett Mecum was hovering about, but I didn't eyeball him myself.
Before the hearing, I asked Harding why the AG's office was in favor of the bill.
He told me it was because the AG's office had "pulled some data" for Stevens on the issue.
"Having done the research and pulled stuff for him," said Harding, with Grisham listening in, "I think it's just good policy to be supportive of it."
Harding went on to tell me that Arizona "lags behind other states," in the way records requests are dealt with.
"We're supportive of stopping these requests that take thousands of hours," said Harding.
(You know, like those from reporters digging into corruption in the AG's office.)
Grisham chimed in, "It's a resource thing."
Harding denied that the AG's office had anything to do with drafting Stevens' striker.
Um, other than sending Stevens the research info.
"This has nothing to do with individual requests for us," Harding insisted. "Our lawyers have to deal with records requests from other agencies. We have to do all of the redacting [of confidential information]."
Harding said he was only there to testify, "if needed."
And Grisham? Grisham said that she was on hand because the bill affected her directly, since she handles public records requests for the AG's office.
As for Mecum, Grisham later e-mailed me this reply.
"We had multiple bills in multiple committees," she wrote. "Perhaps Brett had a break in the bills he was monitoring? I don't know."
Because of a procedural snafu (supposedly), Stevens informed those present there would not be a vote on the striker.
But he decided to go forward with a discussion, nonetheless. He promised to hold a stakeholders' meeting on the issue this coming Wednesday.
Attorney Chris Moeser, representing Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it would "impose a significant burden" both on reporters, and on members of the public who just want to look at public documents.
"It's just contrary to the history of the Arizona Public Records Law, which has always allowed a right of inspection for no charge," Moeser told the committee.
Moeser said the "fees" charged could involve attorneys' fees, which might run anywhere from $200 to $300 per hour. He noted that there already is case law allowing a public body to reject a records request as being too broad and "unduly burdensome."
Private investigator Rich Robertson also spoke against the bill, relating how he does work pro bono for the Arizona Justice Project, a non-profit organization which looks into cases of wrongful conviction.
In one instance, according to Robertson, the organization helped exonerate a person who had been in prison for nearly 40 years. This, due to information that the project found in a time-consuming public records request of police files going back to the 1960s.
Rene Guillen of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns spoke in support of the idea of curbing irresponsible public records requests, saying that the league's members have long had problems with complying with them.
But the league is not "tied to any one method or mechanism," said Guillen.
After the hearing, Stevens informed reporters that he would be looking to revive the strike-everything language in the House Appropriations Committee, as his committee was done for the year.
I asked Stevens who authored the bill.
"Legislative staff wrote it," he said. "But it was my idea."
He claimed the issue had come up in previous testimony before his committee. He also said he had talked to both the League of Cities and Towns and the AG's office about it.
"Once they knew I was looking into it, they contacted me, and said, `Well, here are our issues.'" explained Stevens.
As you might expect, Horne's political opponents were critical of the AG's support for the striker.
"It's not surprising that three employees from the Attorney's General Office would be on site to support a bill that makes it more difficult for the public to know what their government is up to," Ryan Anderson, campaign manager for Horne's GOP primary foe Mark Brnovich, said in a written statement.
"The striker being championed by the AG is essentially a `transparency tax,'" he added. "Mr. Horne has demonstrated a history of having trouble distinguishing between public and private interest. What else is Tom Horne hoping the public won't find?"
Luis Heredia, campaign manager for Horne's once and perhaps future Democratic foe Felecia Rotellini, pointed to Rotellini's recent proposals to bring "transparency and accountability" to state government, including the AG's office.
"A common theme that Felecia talks about is openness and transparency being a core value of the attorney general's office," Heredia stated. "The burden for transparency should rest on the government, not the public."
Indeed, the striker's language would make prohibitive the cost of acquiring public records for non-commercial reasons, like news-gathering or a citizen's right to know.
Those looking to obtain the same information for a commercial purpose already are subject to additional fees.
One of the good things about Arizona is its public records law. But even with it, nefarious public servants do their best to delay and deny journalists and regular citizens access to documents that belong to the people.
If Horne's office prevails, it will be easier to frustrate the public's attempts to monitor government activities.
Which makes me want to hop to it and put in more public records requests to the AG's office, on the outside chance that Horne gets his way.
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