Media Outlets Sue Washington State Lawmakers Over Stonewalled Records Requests

OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – Legislators in Washington state are failing to produce calendars, emails and other correspondence under the Public Records Act, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by The Associated Press and other media organizations.

The AP claims lawmakers have been avoiding full compliance with the state’s open-records initiative, passed in 1976 and amended in 1995. Many elected officials have attempted to exempt themselves from the law, claiming they are not bound by the 1995 amendment that clarified the “state legislative office” meant a member of the state House or Senate.

The Washington state Legislature has also tried twice, in 2003 and 2005, to pass bills that would exempt lawmakers from the public disclosure rules. Both efforts failed.

In its lawsuit, the AP noted “legislators taking this position are wrong, and this lawsuit is necessary to establish the Legislature did not reverse the will of the people in Initiative I-276 and remove or narrow its reach to the very elected individuals with which that initiative was so deeply concerned.”

The complaint offers multiple examples of lawmakers denying press requests for their personal calendars, emails and videos over the last several years, often citing their interpretation of the public-records law to defend the denial.

“The media has been telling the Legislature that they are subject to the Public Records Act, but it seems like it’s time they heard it from someone else. So the goal of this lawsuit is to have the court weigh in and make them comply,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard of Allied Law, the attorney representing the nine media outlets in the suit. “This lawsuit can be as fast and as simple as the Legislature wants to make it.”

Earl-Hubbard said the issue of legislators dodging public-records requests was recently highlighted when the press tried to gain access to legislative information regarding the controversial McCleary court decision. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled against Legislature in 2012’s McCleary v. State by finding the Legislature was not fully funding public education.

The high court also assessed fines against the state until lawmakers passed a budget with sufficient education funding. As legislators tried to address this issue during the 2017 legislative session, reporters wanted to know who skipped a vote, who may have been talking to lobbyists about the issue and other questions. When those public-records queries were ignored, it underscored the problem, Earl-Hubbard said.

“We also had another situation where a member of the Senate accepted a temporary position with the Trump administration and was splitting his time between Washington D.C. and Olympia, but was not releasing his calendar,” Earl-Hubbard noted.

Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, state Sen. Doug Erickson accepted a temporary position with the administration. When the AP requested Erickson’s calendar for the first two months of the legislative session, state Senate lawyers denied the request by citing the state law and noting that the calendar did not fall under the definition of a “public record.”

Earl-Hubbard said the plaintiffs hope the lawsuit will clarify for legislators that the public-records law does apply to them and will help address problems in the future. Along with the AP, plaintiffs in the case include the Seattle Times, Northwest News Network, the Spokesman-Review, KING-TV, KIRO-7 and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

“The press had tried so many ways to access these records and they kept getting the wall,” Earl-Hubbard said. “This could be a short lawsuit or it could go as far as it needs to in order to address the issue.”

The media outlets also want the court to impose a penalty, up to $100 per page per day, on public-records requests that have been denied.

State House of Representatives Clerk Bernard Dean, who often handles public-records requests, declined to comment on the lawsuit. State Senate Secretary Hunter Goodman said his office is only able to provide financial records like legislators’ business expenses and reimbursements, and requests for other materials are sent to Senate counsel. A Senate counsel staffer declined to comment on the suit.

 

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