ACLU Obtains Attorneys’ Fees In Successful Open Records Suit Against Governor

Posted: Oct, 12, 2010

The State has paid over $5,500 in attorneys’ fees and costs to the RI ACLU to conclude an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) lawsuit the ACLU filed against Governor Donald Carcieri in 2008 seeking access to documents addressing the “chain of command” when the Governor is out of state.

In December 2007, a major snowstorm hit the state when Governor Carcieri was out of the country. Traffic gridlock left some school children stranded on buses for hours. Upon his return, Governor Carcieri announced that Major General Robert Bray, head of the National Guard, would be in charge should similar situations occur in the future. The announcement prompted numerous concerns as to the legal propriety of giving such authority to Bray.

In response, the ACLU filed an open records request, asking the Governor for copies of any documents that, among other things, set out the chain of command for state governance in his absence and described the powers given Maj. Gen. Bray while he was away. The Governor’s executive counsel, Kernan King, responded by turning over only one document: a news release issued by the Governor that attempted to respond to the questions raised in the media about this controversy. King alleged that the only other records responsive to the ACLU’s request were emails that were exempt from public disclosure because they were “internal documents that were created for internal purposes.”

In a lawsuit filed by volunteer attorney Kathleen Managhan, the ACLU challenged that decision, noting that, despite the explanation given about “internal” emails, the Governor’s own news release contained a direct quote from an email his office had sent to the Providence Journal. In response, Superior Court Judge Patricia Hurst last year ordered the Governor to release emails to the ACLU that he had failed to turn over. More recently, she ruled that the ACLU was entitled to recover $5,594.32 in attorneys’ fees and costs for successfully bringing the suit. The State decided not to appeal, and instead paid the fees this month.

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown today: “It is unfortunate that the Governor’s office was so cavalier in responding to our request for documents, but that has been a hallmark of this administration. We are hopeful that the next Governor will be more sensitive to his obligations to promote the public’s right to know.”