INDIANAPOLIS (CN) – An Indiana watchdog group claims in court that the governor’s office is stalling on a public records request for communications between former Gov. Mike Pence and then-President-elect Donald Trump about a deal to keep Carrier Corporation jobs from going to Mexico.
The Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, or CAC, and its staff attorney Jennifer Washburn filed a lawsuit Thursday in Marion County accusing Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office of violating the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, or APRA.
According to the complaint, Washburn filed a request under APRA in December for communications between Pence and Trump or his campaign from Nov. 14 through Nov. 29, 2016, “which are related to, or reference in any way, Carrier, UTC Climate Controls & Security, Gregory Hayes and/or United Technologies.”
Washburn claims she also asked for any communications between the Indiana governor’s office and any other state government entity or employee relating to Trump or Carrier; communications between the governor’s office and Carrier about Trump; and any other communications with third parties referencing both Trump and Carrier.
The specified time frame in November is important because that is when then-President-elect Trump brokered a deal with Carrier, a division of United Technologies, to keep 800 of 2,100 factory jobs in the U.S. after the company threatened to move its plants to Mexico. To sweeten the pot, Trump offered Carrier $7 million in tax breaks that the state of Indiana will pay out over 10 years.
The actual outcome of the deal is murky because, while Carrier agreed to keep some jobs at an Indianapolis plant in exchange for $7 million in tax incentives, the company disclosed in May that it would still be laying off more than 600 workers starting this month.
Another facet of the deal was Carrier’s commitment to investing $16 million dollars into the Indianapolis plant, but that investment will likely result in fewer jobs because most of the money will be spent on automation.
According to the CAC’s lawsuit, Washburn was told by the governor’s office in April that her records request needed further clarification.
The complaint states that Washburn declined to amend her request because she believes that it already complies with state-law requirements.
“The Office of the Governor made no claim in its April 13, 2017, response to Ms. Washburn’s APRA request either that her request was too vague or ambiguous to enable it to respond, or that it was unable to search its records using the parameters she provided,” the lawsuit says. “Neither has the Office of the Governor stated the specific reasons it was unable to comply with the request as constituted, nor has it suggest ways in which Ms. Washburn might modify her request.”
Kerwin Olson, executive director of the CAC, said in a statement that the request for records on the Carrier jobs deal “should have easily met APRA’s threshold requirement for reasonable particularity.”
“The Governor’s Office is stonewalling production of the documents, hiding from the sunlight of transparency which is essential to good government,” Olson said. “Our request for documents about the Carrier deal was very specific in terms of time frame, and set forth in detail the documents we wanted and still want the Governor’s Office to produce.”
The Indiana governor’s office did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on the CAC lawsuit.
Both Washburn and the CAC are represented by Indianapolis attorney William Groth, who has also been involved in his own records spat with the state.
Groth filed a lawsuit that sought the disclosure of emails about former Gov. Pence’s decision to use taxpayer money to hire outside counsel for a multi-state lawsuit that challenged then-President Barack Obama’s immigration executive orders.
Groth’s lawsuit climbed all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which declined in May to hear the case.
The state high court’s decision to not hear the case left in place the appeals court’s 2-1 ruling that kept Pence’s emails hidden. The appeals court ruled that the emails in question were protected under attorney-client privilege.
In a statement about the new lawsuit over the Carrier deal, Groth said government officials’ demands for increasing levels of specificity in records requests “will result in lengthy delays and effectively shift the burden of proof for nondisclosure from the public agency to the citizen seeking access to the public records.”
“This would eviscerate APRA’s stated purpose of promoting governmental transparency and insuring that all persons timely receive information they request regarding the affairs of state government,” he added.