UPDATED: Maine Attorney General obstructs public information

UPDATED 3:10 pm May 15: The governor, through his spokesman, David Farmer, has said he supports the decision of the Corrections Department and the Attorney General's Office to depart from previous executive-branch practices and charge the news media to fulfill a public-records request.

Linda Pistner of the Attorney General's office has also responded, saying that the fee is being charged because the request is so broad. That may suggest there are many more criminal charges that have been filed since January 1, 2004, against the Department of Corrections and its employees than we suspect. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that the law allows - and encourages - state agencies to waive fees for requests deemed to be in the public interest, regardless of what those fees might otherwise be.

Of course these top officials - who are happy to use taxpayer dollars to issue press releases and large reports on things they are proud of - don't want you to know about any criminal activity by Corrections employees. But if they'll use taxpayer dollars to puff themselves up, their duty is no less to the public to show the facts behind the facade. Their insistence on creating barriers to public access raises that big question public officials hate to hear: What are they hiding?

Our continued efforts to open the Maine Department of Corrections to public scrutiny have hit another stone wall. Diane Sleek of the Maine Attorney General's Office today issued a ruling requiring the Portland Phoenix to pay the maximum amount allowed by law for access to public records, despite our repeated requests for a waiver of fees.

It remains to be seen whether her boss, Attorney General Steven Rowe - who is running for governor in the 2010 election - backs her on this matter, or whether Governor John Baldacci does, either. I'll update this report when I hear back from them. (I'm not that hopeful about Rowe; see "Government Secrecy is Fine with Maine's Attorney General," by Jeff Inglis, October 10, 2007.)

The fees are not required by the state's Freedom of Access law, which does allow agencies to charge fees if they wish, and which limits the fees to $10 per hour.

Sleek has not only decided to charge a fee, but also to charge $10 per hour.

She has, in addition, denied our request for a waiver under the provision of the law that covers requests that are "in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of government."

This request is for public records regarding what criminal charges since January 1, 2004, have been brought against the Department of Corrections or any of its employees acting in their official capacities, and the disposition of these cases.

The request also asks for information on which employees of the Department of Corrections in the last five years have worked for the DOC while charged with or under sentence for any criminal conviction, including any charge or conviction not connected with their employment.

If that's not in the public interest, it's hard to know what is. But as we have long documented, the Corrections Department and the Attorney General's Office are committed to erecting barriers to transparent government. (See "Stonewalling is Normal," by Lance Tapley, December 13, 2006.)

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