The public’s right to know at risk, CCFOI says

By Ed Jacovino
Journal Inquirer
Wednesday, December 19, 2012

HARTFORD — The state Appellate Court says police can offer limited information in a news release and still meet the requirements for open government.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office is refusing to name state employees who have been disciplined for fraudulently applying for welfare.

And the legislature is approving state employee contracts that overrule a state law requiring that personnel files be public information.

Those are some of the events of the past year that the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information is taking issue with. And it has issued a report to legislature urging it to take action to ensure state government is accountable to the people.

“We think it’s widespread throughout all three branches of government, and we’re asking government leaders
to stop and think about this,” council President James Smith said Tuesday.

The council is composed of representatives from newspapers and other media outlets, and usually works with the state Freedom of Information Commission to produce an agenda. This year, Smith said, it decided to make
proposals on its own.

In the police court case, the New Haven Register contended that state police had withheld public information about a 2008 arrest in Derby. The Freedom of Information Commission sided with the newspaper, but a trial court ruled in favor of the state police. The state Appellate Court in a decision this year ruled that basic information about an arrest — the name of the person arrested, date, time, charges, and a short description of the incident — is enough to satisfy the state’s open-government laws.

Regarding state employees and federal welfare, the state has refused to release to the Journal Inquirer the names of employees who were disciplined after they lied about their income on applications seeking welfare after Hurricane Irene in August 2011.

The state employees had applied for aid under the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP. Some 128 cases were referred for administrative review, and 103 workers left state service by retiring, resigning, or being fired. In June, some 40 of them got their jobs back, but lost pay as part of the punishment.

Malloy’s office cited a state law that makes it illegal to identify any state or federal welfare applicant or recipient. That trumps open-government laws, they contend, even if the aid was applied for fraudulently.

As for state employee contracts, the Journal Inquirer has been denied access to the discipline file of a professor at Central Connecticut State University.

A provision in the professors contract makes their personnel files off-limits, and a little-known law says that provisions in state employee union contracts can trump state law. The state Freedom of Information Act says access to personnel files can be denied only if it would be an invasion of personal privacy.

Smith’s group also is trying to ban what he calls “midnight amendments” by which the legislature introduces bills and quickly passes them as the legislative deadline nears. Some elements of those bills never receive a public hearing.

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information also is seeking to make the Freedom of Information Commission independent. It was merged into the Office of Governmental Affairs in 2011 and this year there was an effort to further weaken the commission’s independence, Smith said.

Andrew J. McDonald, Malloy’s general counsel and a former state senator, didn’t return a request for comment Tuesday.

Malloy, a Democrat, has had a mixed record on transparency, Smith said, adding that while Malloy has made himself available to reporters and editors to talk about his decisions, some of those decisions have flown in the face of open government.

Smith’s example: the fraudulent D-SNAP applications.

“We just think that’s a dodge,” he said. “It does not allow the public to adequately assess the wrongdoing or whether there was wrongdoing.”

***Reprinted with permission from the Journal Inquirer**

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