Posts Tagged ‘Pennsylvania’


FOI Daily Dose: Judge dismisses North Carolina public records lawsuit for confidential settlement; Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

Judge dismisses N.C. public records lawsuit against hospital chain for confidential settlement

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit a Charlotte attorney filed against one of the nation’s largest public hospital chains for violating the North Carolina public records law, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner ruled that the hospital chain, Carolinas HealthCare System, can legally keep a confidential settlement from its 2008 lawsuit against the former Wachovia Bank (see previous post).

Since the hospital chain’s board of directors made the settlement in a closed session and kept it confidential, attorney Gary Jackson filed a public records request to inspect it and ensure it’s fair.

In a hearing last week, attorneys for Carolinas HealthCare argued that the hospital chain can legally withhold the settlement because the state’s public records laws has many holes.

But Jackson said legislators never intended the law to allow confidential settlements in lawsuits involving government agencies, so he plans to appeal Sumner’s ruling to the N.C. Court of Appeals, according to The Observer.

The Observer notes that former state Senator David Hoyle who sponsored most North Carolina public records laws, agrees with Jackson.

“The intent was that if it becomes a court case, the results of the settlement were to be made public,” Hoyle told The Observer.

Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

As Pennsylvania lawmakers weigh a series of potential changes to the state’s 5-year-old Right-to-Know law, the head of Pennsylvania’s open records agency is telling them to proceed with caution, according to NewsWorks.

The Senate is considering one piece of legislation to address problems with the state’s open records, and the House has at least 10 different proposals.

But Terry Mutchler, director of the Office of Open Records, told NewsWorks some of the changes proposed in the name of open government could deny certain populations, such as prison inmates, the right to access information and exempt information from public requests.

“While the intent is good, I have some concerns with the results,” Mutchler told NewsWorks.

But until the legislature decides to change Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, a recent Commonwealth Court decision could mean more access to information from state-related universities, according to Watchdog News.

In the case of Ryan Bagwell v. Department of Education, Bagwell, a Penn State alumnus, requested information about the Jerry Sandusky investigation, including emails, letters, reports and memos sent to then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis. The Commonwealth Court decided since the records are part of the education secretary’s job dealing with state-related universities, they should be released, Watchdog News said.

Mutchler expects the decision to have a “domino effect” on similar cases, and she expects the state to expand the Right-to-Know law for state-related universities.

“I am grateful the Legislature took its time with deciding this question, because it has to be done right, and it has to be done well, and the implications of it have to be thought through,” Mutchler told Watchdog News.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI Daily Dose: Open government strides in Lone Star State, stampers in Pennsylvania

Lawmakers in Texas passed a series of bills this week to protect reporters and promote open government. One of the most notable is Senate Bill 1368 (an update to the Texas Public Information Act) that keeps public officials from concealing official matters of business by corresponding over private email accounts and other electronic communications.

Such legislation would help reporters at the San Antonio Express-News who are trying to obtain emails that Texas County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson sent to constituents from his private email account regarding official business.

The Express-News won at trial court last fall, but Adkisson appealed to a state appellate court, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has supported the Express-News, arguing the emails should be disclosed.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to approve the proposed legislation.

But despite strides in the Lone Star State, the fight for access to information rages on in Pennsylvania, where the state Department of Environmental Protection is withholding answers about how its extensive natural gas drilling is affecting water contamination in residential wells.

Researchers, reporters, scientists and residents all have a stake in the matter, but the agency says their open records requests are “burdensome.” DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday told NBC10 Philadelphia that the agency receives 1,200 right-to-know requests each year, some of which are too “broadly worded.”

But since the DEP lost an open records case last year against the Scranton Times-Tribune, the Office of Open Records and the Commonwealth Court  have criticized it for poor record keeping.

Sunday, the DEP spokesman, told NBC10 the agency’s records are not incomplete and disorganized, and the DEP “continues to operate with the utmost transparency.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Drunken driving in Penn. and fingerprint data

FOIA’s public safety exemption is under scrutiny in Pennsylvania, where the state’s Commonwealth Court ordered the Office of Open Records on Tuesday to reexamine its choice to give a Harrisburg lawyer access to police training materials about drunken driving.

The open records office must conduct a hearing to decide whether disclosing police course materials from Harrisburg Area Community College could endanger public safety.

The college’s open records officer, Patrick Early, granted lawyer Justin McShane access to DUI-related records in July 2009. They excluded some records but included an affidavit explaining the reasoning for withholding the information.

However, the open records office said the explanation didn’t show how the training information could risk public safety or undermine police efforts to combat drunken driving.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security faces opposition as plaintiffs in a lawsuit accuse DHS of trying to hide information about an immigrant fingerprinting program by failing to disclose email trails despite court orders to do so.

The program, known as Secure Communities, allows officials to compare department database information to the digital fingerprints of those booked by local law enforcement agencies.

The most dangerous individuals, such as those convicted of murder, can then be deported.

Critics argue that it targets innocent people who have minor or dismissed charges as well as hardened criminals. Due to a FOIA request, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released many electronic files for statistics, emails and other information.

The agency is attempting to block a court ruling that ICE must provide the file formatting information, recipient trail and labeling data. But the plaintiffs – including the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network – said the metadata is key information that should not be stripped from the files.

— Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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