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

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

Published June 18, 2007

Penalty ought to get officials’ attention

When government bureaucrats botch requests for public records, it’s the taxpayers who pay. If bureaucrats had to dig into their own pockets instead of the public treasury, perhaps they would be a little more responsive to legitimate requests for government documents.

We raise this issue because Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch last week signed a settlement agreement ordering the state Department of Corrections to pay $541,155 to a prison-issue newspaper that had to wait five years to receive public information about medical personnel who injured inmates.

That’s right — a five-year wait and a half million dollar settlement.

The sum is staggering — $236,100 for the newspaper and $337,646 in attorney fees.

Michele Earl-Hubbard, the Seattle attorney who represented Prison Legal News in the case, said she believes the negotiated settlement is the biggest public-records judgment in the state of Washington.

The case dates back to a 2000 request for documents filed by Prison Legal News, a newspaper founded by Paul Wright when he was incarcerated for felony murder. The paper reports on prison news and has a circulation of about 6,000.

In his public records request Wright, a Vermont resident, sought information about Corrections employees who worked under restricted medical licenses because of past misconduct or whose care injured or contributed to the death of inmates. Prison officials produced more than 1,200 pages of documents in 2001, but some of the information was blacked out.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge William “Tom” McPhee ruled that the blacked out portions were legitimate. An appellate court upheld McPhee. But the state Supreme Court disagreed and ordered the documents released in 2005. The Department of Corrections took 266 days to provide some of the records. It was the delay in turning over the documents that led to the half-million dollar settlement.

Wright says the state has now paid his newspaper close to $1.3 million over the past decade for various judgments he has won. That begs the question: Is anyone at Corrections paying attention?

Did other government officials take note of the record-setting penalty? Are they paying close attention to requests for public records in their own agencies?

State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who is on the board of directors of a statewide open-government coalition, said he hopes the judgment grabs the attention of state and local officials. “What I hope comes from this is an increased sensitivity to public records and public information being readily made available to the public,” Sonntag said. “This will be a very visible lesson to state agencies and local government that public means public. The bottom line is it gets down to the mindset: Are we going to look for ways to make information available to the public or ways to find exemptions?”

Earl-Hubbard, the winning attorney, added, “The biggest thing is it begins to show agencies that if you do delay and do not turn over records, you will have to pay dollars. The unfortunate thing to me is, it isn’t their money; it is taxpayers’ money.”

That truly is unfortunate.



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