Leader Blues

Thursday, October 04, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Courts must preserve FOI

It does not take a rotten court precedent long to bear poison fruit.

You will remember the astonishing decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court this summer that said a public official’s misuse of his public time and equipment to conduct his private affairs could be kept secret. Ron Quillen — a former Pulaski County comptroller who last week received a 12-year prison sentence and agreed to repay thousands of dollars he stole from taxpayers — had been sending hundreds of emails from his county computer to a businesswoman with whom his office was doing county business. They were lovers, and the county insisted that those emails thus were embarrassing private matters having nothing to do with the public’s business.

The state Supreme Court, in a 4 to 3 decision, said that correspondence indeed might not be any of the public’s business and directed Circuit Judge Mary Ann McGowan to review every one of the mammoth stack of notes back and forth between the former county official and the Missouri businesswoman and determine which were private and which had some public import. She did that and ruled that all of them had public consequence — they were written on government computers on government property and presumably on taxpayer-paid employee time — except for a few graphic pictures the couple sent each other. Now the case is back before the Supreme Court again.

Immediately, as we predicted, government officials would drag their feet releasing public documents by claiming that they were private and had no public value. Last week, a Pulaski County circuit judge — not the unimpeachable Judge McGowan — slapped a seal on records relating to the firing of the Argenta Community Development Corp. executive director because the agency says making them public would violate his privacy. Ultimately, the courts will surely declare the records public, but that is the problem with the Supreme Court decision.

By requiring a close judicial review of every such instance, the court encourages officials everywhere to stonewall on public records. They can delay the release of records for months or years while the case winds its way through the courts. And, of course, most people will not want to bear the high cost of suing so the records more often than not will never be opened.

When the Supreme Court reviews the hundreds of emails in the Pulaski County fraud-and-sex case, maybe one of the justices — it will take only one to switch the majority — will see the error of the majority’s way and reverse that terrible precedent.