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County Prosecutor Looking To Arrest Housing Official After Agency Demands $16,000 To Fulfill FOIA Request

van TechDirt - di, 11/11/2014 - 01:02

This may be about 60% stunt and 40% forceful nudge, but I'm still behind it 100%. For far too long, public officials have treated Freedom of Information laws as an annoyance... at best. In many cases, information designated as eligible for freedom has to be pried out of officials' hands using lawsuits, needlessly-protracted appeals processes or crowd-sourced tenacity. Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley said he will issue an arrest affidavit today against Rodney Forte, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Alliance in Little Rock, for a violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. First off, you can be arrested for violating this act. In Arkansas, any violation of its FOIA law can result in this penalty. Any person who negligently violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars ($200) or thirty (30) days in jail, or both, or a sentence of appropriate public service or education, or both. It's nice to see someone following the letter of the law. Not following the letter of the law (and steamrolling its spirit) is what put Forte in the prosecutor's sights. Forte had decided to greet a FOIA request he didn't want to fulfill with the time-honored anti-FOIA tactic of pricing his agency out of the market. The action comes after the Metropolitan Housing Alliance sent an invoice to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette late Tuesday,charging more than $16,000 to hire outside workers to help the agency comply with a records-release request -- a practice the Little Rock city attorney and other Arkansas Freedom of Information Act experts say is illegal. It may be illegal, but plenty of agencies do it without suffering anything more than a loss in the court of public opinion. Sure, they may eventually face lawsuits, but that's really just public money being spent in defense of a publicly-funded agency's desire to keep the public separated from public documents. It's about as painful to the offending agency as being punched in someone else's wallet.

This particular form of enforcement is rarely (if ever) deployed, although Arkansas seems to be more aggressive than most states when it comes to punishing violators. In Jegley's 23 years as a county prosecutor, he's never seen this happen. Usually some sort of compromise between requester and requestee is reached before it gets to this point. But that hasn't happened in this dispute, which has been ongoing for several months now -- even involving Little Rock's mayor's intervention on behalf of the requesting party, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola contacted Forte on Wednesday in an attempt to intervene in the latest dispute over records. Stodola is a former Little Rock city attorney and Pulaski County prosecutor.

"I am not familiar with any request for payment for such a large nature as this and based on my interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, the computer systems that the agency has are required to make this information readily available," Stodola said.

"These kinds of document requests are routine, and when I was prosecutor, virtually all of this kind of information [at most agencies] is kept in an electronic format that can be downloaded quite easily." Forte claims proprietary software is involved and all documents would need to be printed and scanned before they could be released, but has failed to detail what software the agency is using or released any other technical details. He has also hasn't discussed his agency's failure to comply with another section of the state's FOIA law. Arkansas Code Annotated 25-19-105 (g) states that any software acquired by an agency "shall be in full compliance with the requirements" of the Freedom of Information Act and "shall not impede public access to records in electronic form." So, Jegley has answered Forte's obfuscatory power play with one of his own. At this point, Forte's arrest is in the hands of a judge. Jegley still needs to turn his affidavit into a warrant, at which point it may expand to include others involved in the Metropolitan Housing Authority's $16,000 fiasco.

Hopefully, this move will force the documents out of the agency's hands. Clearly, there's something in there it wants hidden -- something likely related to agency's addition of a $92,000/yr deputy executive director during a period when it was shedding nearly a third of its staff and reducing pay to non-salaried employees.

Even if this goes nowhere, it's still incredibly refreshing to see public servants acting to hold other public servants accountable. Other states should take a good look at Arkansas' FOIA law and think about giving their own a few teeth by making violations an arrestable offense.



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