It was a public records request to the Indiana Department of Education that delivered a blockbuster news story last year. Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press uncovered email correspondence revealing state Superintendent Tony Bennett had scrambled to change the C grade earned by Christel House, a charter school one of his own campaign donors had founded.
LoBianco’s requests and subsequent stories unleashed a chain of events still unfolding:
Bennett’s resignation as Florida education commissioner.
An investigation of Indiana’s school-grading formula.
The resignation of Gov. Mike Pence’s legislative director.
And the Indiana inspector general’s charge that Bennett illegally used state resources to conduct campaign activities and fundraising in his failed 2012 re-election bid. The former Indiana schools chief has hired two of the state’s top criminal defense attorneys to represent him before the State Ethics Commission in May.
The emails and official calendars that fueled the investigations were produced using state resources, but they weren’t materials readily offered. Indiana’s Open Door Law and its Access to Public Records Act are tools frequently required to ensure the public’s business is done in full light. Sunshine Week, which begins today, is a national initiative by news organizations, libraries, civic groups and others to remind Americans of the importance of open government and freedom of information.
A filing in a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit just delivered startling details in the battle between the CIA and Senate Intelligence Committee over the federal agency’s clandestine and illegal use of torture techniques. From the highest levels of the federal government down to township-level financial records, access laws serve the public’s interest.
Public health and safety are served by disclosure. When reports of bedbug infestations at halfway houses and motels increased last year, The Journal Gazette’s Jeff Wiehe confirmed them with health department records requested through the open records law.
Salary information for public employees is public record, but reporter Dan Stockman submitted FOIA requests to obtain figures for the city and county officials. The Journal Gazette’s routine requests, in fact, have served to make most officials aware that salary information must be made public.
That’s not to say all public officials cooperate. Reporter Vivian Sade is continually stonewalled by Huntertown officials, who demand FOIA requests for even the most routine meeting documents. The town council’s actions involving a proposed wastewater treatment plant, however, directly affect tax bills. With an annual budget of less than $2 million, Huntertown has spent more than $220,000 in legal and engineering fees in appealing the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s denial of a treatment plant permit.
The need for public access laws hasn’t decreased with emerging technology. In addition to creating ways to collect data on private citizens, it has created ways for government officials to hide public information or to communicate outside official channels. Updated laws are required to reflect technology, with continued vigilance and pressure on public officials to operate in full light.
Democracy exists only where government is open. Sunshine Week is a necessary reminder of the need to protect transparency.