For Immediate Release:
April 11, 2017
Montpellier, VT – This week, legislators on the Vermont House Appropriations Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee meet to consider the budget for each Vermont agency. However, as the legislature considers the Attorney General’s budget proposal for his own office, recent events confirm that lawmakers should take a close look at the proposal and the AG’s record in implementing Vermont’s open records law.
Specifically, the OAG reports assisting with 19 Public Records Act requests in 2016 (page 7). The OAG also details, at great length, the financial recoveries the office obtains for the State of Vermont (page 10). Both of these claims merit, specific, close scrutiny.
At one time the Vermont OAG set an example for sister states in fulfilling public records requests. However, after properly fulfilling one request last April led to widespread embarrassment through the revelations the records provided, OAG began a coordinated campaign of stonewalling records requests, an effort that continues to date, which is the subject of two claims currently pending in Washington Superior Court against OAG. In one claim, the AG’s Office made the remarkable assertion that it is in the best interest of the State of Vermont to keep records secret and that it was appropriate to Google the names of those seeking records to add “context” before deciding whether to comply with the law to fulfill a request for records. This is not only directly contrary to a 1992 Vermont Supreme Court ruling in Finburg v. Murnane, that the Vermont Public Records Act is a neutral statute that applies equally to all requesters, but plainly resulted from the embarrassment of fulfilling the aforementioned, related request.
Vermont legislators have made clear that this was not their intent in passing this law, and the legislature has expressly found and declared that “Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment.”
“When it comes to public records requests, Vermont has a proud tradition of following the letter of the law as intended by the legislature,” said Craig Richardson, president of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal). “Unfortunately, once the public scrutiny intensified regarding our public records requests, the OAG began using a political calculus not envisioned by the legislature – most likely due to the influence of his New York Attorney General colleague – and this is not the Vermont way.”
The AG’s financial recoveries for the State of Vermont are also being put at risk by the Attorney General’s recent actions deciding to implement the law depending on the identity of the requester, whether OAG feels they are sympathetic to OAG priorities. This practice consumes taxpayer resources to wrongly delay record production, and create the risk that the the State will be forced to pay attorney’s fees for requesters who are wrongfully denied records under the law. Further, this scenario is compounded by its relationship to a seemingly reckless, apparently abandoned investigation of political opponents that has already led to civil suits being filed against the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.
Before handing out more taxpayer money to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, the legislature should take a closer look at the agency’s actions to ensure political agendas aren’t being carried out on the taxpayer’s dime, and that the office isn’t conflating its own parochial or political interests with the best interests of the State of Vermont.
The Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal) is a 501(c)(3) organization engaged in strategic litigation, policy research, and public education on important energy and environmental issues. Primarily through its petition litigation and transparency practice areas, E&E Legal seeks to correct onerous federal and state policies that hinder the economy, increase the cost of energy, eliminate jobs, and do little or nothing to improve the environment.