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

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees - Seattle Times 2007

Friday, June 8, 2007 - 12:00 AM

Corrections Dept. to pay $541,000 for keeping documents from prison newspaper

By Jonathan Martin
Seattle Times staff reporter

The state Department of Corrections agreed to pay $541,000 — a record amount — for wrongly withholding public records from the publisher of a prison watchdog newspaper.

The agreement, filed today in Thurston County Superior Court, includes an admission that the agency destroyed 19 documents related to the discipline of prison medical providers, documents that should have been released to the newspaper, Prison Legal News. That error tacked on nearly $50,000 to the award.

The penalty is the largest ever levied in Washington state for a violation of the state's Open Public Records Act, which entitles citizens to view the paper trail of public agencies, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, the newspaper's attorney.

"The bad thing is this is the taxpayer's money," said Earl-Hubbard. But "it sends a message to agencies it that if you violate the law, it will have an impact on you in the future."

In 2000, Paul Wright, who then ran Prison Legal News from behind bars, requested records relating to the discipline of state medical providers from 1996 to 2000. The Department of Corrections (DOC) provided some documents, but blacked out the staff names to maintain prison security, it claimed.

In 2005, the state Supreme Court ruled that the redactions violated the law, and it ordered the DOC to pay penalties of between $5 and $100 a day and to pay attorney fees. Last year, the DOC acknowledged that some of the documents had been destroyed, which constituted a second violation of the law.

Among the records released to Prison Legal News were details of the 1998 death of Charles Snipes, who was left to die in his cell at Monroe after complaining of breathing problems.

"We knew medical care in prison was bad, and we knew their system of medical discipline was ineffective," said Wright, who was released from prison in 2004 after serving a 17-year murder sentence. "It's one thing to know it; it's another thing to have the documents to prove it."

The DOC and an attorney with the Attorney General's office were not immediately available.

In the agreement, the DOC agreed to pay Prison Legal News $200,000 in fines for withholding the documents, and to pay Earl-Hubbard's firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, $341,000 in fees and costs. The firm, which also represents The Seattle Times, took the case pro bono, but with the understanding it would seek attorney fees.

Wright said Prison Legal News would use the award to pay for office space. Meanwhile, he said he has now filed an updated request seeking medical disciplinary records from 2000 to present.

The fine tops the past record of $425,000 paid by King County to Seattle businessman Armen Yousoufian for records related to the construction of Seahawks Stadium.

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