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Price of delay in releasing public records: $525,001

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 8, 2009 at 6:08 pm |
December 22, 2009 1:53 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Failing to disclose public records can get expensive, as the state keeps finding out.

The Department of Social and Health Services recently agreed to pay $525,001 to three girls who’d been abused for years by their state-licensed foster father, who was convicted of sex crimes two years ago and sentenced to four years in prison. The money wasn’t compensation for the abuse; it was for the agency’s violations of the state’s Public Records Act.

Their girls’ attorneys had sued DSHS for documents related to their $45 million claim for damages. The agency reportedly turned over more than 5,300 records, but the lawyers suspected some were being withheld. After they filed another lawsuit, 203 more turned up.

The attorneys allege that some of that paperwork was deliberately hidden. The agency denies any intentional concealment. It released a statement attributing the failure to technical errors, confusion arising from the way the requests were made and delays in discovering the documents.

Whether DSHS acted intentionally or not, the public is still out $525,001, split three ways among the girls.

In this case, the fine is thoroughly justified. Civil justice depends on honest and full disclosure of material information. You can easily destroy a legitimate legal claim by keeping documents out of the other side’s hands. It doesn’t take malice to destroy a claim; mere negligence will suffice.

The potential good news here is that DSHS appears to be taking this issue seriously. It has announced plans to create a centralized records-request tracking system and a centralized disclosure staff, and better train its staff to manage and save public records.

It sounds as if it has been far too easy for documents to disappear within the bowels of this mega-agency. We’ll know things have changed when DSHS starts treating its public records as inviolable public property to be carefully archived and released upon request.

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