Bluegrass Pro SPJ issues statement on resignation of open government expert from AG office

Bluegrass (Kentucky) Professional Chapter SPJ issued a statement Tuesday in response to the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, the AG office’s lead attorney with 25 years of experience in Open Meetings and Open Records appeals. Bensenhaver resigned after being reprimanded for speaking with a reporter without permission.

See the full statement below and links to articles about the resignation including an editorial by Bluegrass Pro Vice President John A. Nelson.

Sept. 6, 2016

To whom it may concern:

Transparency is the lifeblood of a democracy. As our Code of Ethics declares, “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.”

That conviction prompts the SPJ Bluegrass Chapter to express deep concern over the resignation “under considerable duress” of Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver. How Attorney General Andy Beshear intends to replace her and allocate her workload is also a concern for proponents of transparency.

During her 25-year tenure, Bensenhaver has been recognized by open-government advocates as a leading authority on the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings Acts. She has used that expertise to train public officials and the legal community.

One premise for what she considered a severe reprimand from a Beshear-appointed supervisor was an interview with a retired editor for an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the state’s sunshine laws. While it may be office policy to control journalists by funneling their questions through a spokesperson, this practice is a barrier to transparency and an offense to taxpayers.

Bensenhaver’s post-resignation comments raise concerns about the increasing political tenor of the Office of the Attorney General. She says the writing of open-government appeals will be supervised by a non-merit employee, whom the AG can fire without cause. Assigning non-merit employees to handle sensitive open-government opinions is an affront to the intent of these laws and to those who depend on the office as a fortress against officials who believe the public is not entitled to know what their government is doing. The opinions become precedents that governments at all levels must follow unless they are appealed to a circuit court and overturned.

While Kentucky’s sunshine laws are among the best in the country, they come with an inherent imbalance. Public officials can spend taxpayer dollars to defend their positions in court and hire high-priced attorneys, while residents who challenge government secrecy must use their own money or raise it. That imbalance increases the importance of the attorney general’s office, where denials for records can be appealed without an attorney. Well-written opinions by staff attorneys who are not political appointees have provided clear guidance and often resolved issues without being appealed.

We encourage Beshear to replace Bensenhaver with someone who will not be part of the political process, and to not politicize oversight of this important function. We also urge him to end the gag rule on his staff. It is a bizarre contradiction that the very people writing decisions about laws intended to make government transparent are gagged from explaining those decisions or providing insight into the way the laws have been used and how they have worked.

We also recommend the attorney general review the process for issuing these decisions. Bensenhaver was chastised for refusing to sign opinions she wrote that were amended by supervisors. We find it inconceivable that a 25-year expert on these laws – or any attorney, for that matter – would be expected to sign as her own a decision contrary to her interpretation.

Intimidating staff to accept the “approved interpretation” of politically appointed supervisors raises serious questions about whether this attorney general’s priority will be protection of government transparency or furtherance of his political agenda.

In short, Amye Bensenhaver’s resignation under duress is regrettable and a blow to the cause of open government in Kentucky. If Beshear intends to rebuild the public’s confidence in his office, he should insulate staff attorneys who write these opinions from political pressure.

As Louisville’s Louis Brandeis wrote in 1913 before his appointment to the Supreme Court, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” We believe Beshear and his political staff should endorse that maxim in principle and in practice.

The article referenced in reprimand reprimand:
Celebrating 40 years of the Kentucky Open Records Act

Article reporting reprimand and retirement:

Response editorial column by John Nelson:
Retirement leaves AG office less equipped to deal with open meetings, open records



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