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PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees

News Tribune, Jan. 1, 2007. http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/story/845...
PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees - News Tribune 2007

$541,000 says: Don’t withhold public records

THE NEWS TRIBUNE

Last updated: June 12th, 2007 01:24 AM (PDT)

Washington’s Department of Corrections has a well-earned reputation for not being forthcoming with information. On Friday, its secretiveness backfired to the tune of $541,000.

That’s how much the department will have to pay an inmate-rights publication and its attorneys under a settlement approved in Thurston County Superior Court.

It’s the largest penalty a public agency has ever had to pay in this state for withholding public records, not a distinction to be proud of. Nor is the $541,000 actually being paid by the department itself: The bill ultimately will be picked up the taxpayers – a good reason to demand that public officials follow both the spirit and the letter of Washington’s Public Disclosure Act.

The department ran afoul of that law when it denied an inmate’s request for, among other things, documents of disciplinary actions taken again prison medical providers and the names of those providers.

The prisoner, Paul Wright, had founded Prison Legal News, a small-circulation newspaper that focuses on prison issues. He was attempting to find out who had treated 10 inmates who’d wound up seriously injured or dead.

This must have been an easy request to turn down. Wright is not a sympathetic character; he was then doing 17 years for felony murder. His Prison Legal News was hardly a prestige publication; most people had never heard of it. But – the law’s the law.

The Public Disclosure Commission doesn’t exempt requests from felons or tiny newspapers. The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Prison Legal News a year ago; the department’s continued dawdling in turning over the requested information was one of the reasons last week’s penalty was so high.

Other public agencies should take note. In its 2005 opinion, the high court pulled no punches about the demands of the Public Disclosure Act. Some excerpts:

• “The PDA is a strongly worded mandate for broad disclosure of public records.”

• “Any written information about government conduct is a public record, regardless of its physical form or characteristics.”

• “We construe exemptions to the PDA narrowly.”

Not much ambiguity there. Nor in last week’s $541,000 settlement.