Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

EDITORIAL >> FOI victory for people

Circuit Judge Chris Piazza’s ruling that Gov. Huckabee cannot hide the results of an investigation into alleged misconduct of a state official by the ruse of making them part of his office papers was as heartening as it was predictable. But let us hope that the governor is unhappy enough to appeal the order to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees people access to the meetings of government bodies and the records of government action, is a powerful tool of the citizenry, Judge Piazza said. When government refuses to allow people, whether a citizen or a newspaper reporter, to examine records that are of public concern “it creates an atmosphere of public distrust,” he said. “And I think that’s the case here.”

His order quickly followed a hearing on a lawsuit brought by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which was refused access to an investigative report on an allegation against one of the governor’s appointees to the Board of Paroles.

All but a single copy of the report was destroyed and it was sent to Huckabee’s office, where he claimed it to be a privileged paper of his own creation. He said it was part of the governor’s “working papers,” which are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

There was no reason for the judge to dally. The working-papers exemption was never intended to shield the activities of government from the people it serves. Its purpose was to maintain confidentiality between the governor and his staff advisers so that critics can second-guess him while he is developing policy. No one claimed otherwise until Gov. Huckabee began a policy of bringing potentially embarrassing information into his office so that confidentiality could be claimed.

Huckabee refused to release either the letter of resignation from Lynn Zeno, the vice chairman of the Board of Paroles, or the short report of a Parole Division investigation of an employee’s complaint against him. Zeno, who was appointed by Huckabee in 2002, resigned the $75,000-a-year job without a public explanation. The governor merely said he did not think the incident, whatever it was, worthy of asking Zeno to resign and that he didn’t ask for the resignation.

We hope that Mr. Zeno’s peccadillo was as harmless as the governor implies. If so, Huckabee does his friend no favor by keeping it a secret. Imaginations tend to run to the worst.

Judge Piazza stayed his order for 30 days to give the governor a chance to appeal it to the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals. It will be tough for Mr. Zeno to hang in the wind for another six months, but an appeal is best for everyone else. If Gov. Huckabee believes in his doctrine of confidentiality for anything that he chooses then he must protect it by appealing.
The appellate courts, we are supremely confident, will uphold Judge Piazza’s order. With one terrible recent aberration, they have always given the Freedom of Information Act the liberal reading that the authors intended. Gov. Huckabee and any successor who may be similarly inclined need a clear and unambiguous statement from the highest court that there must never be dark corners when public business is at stake.