Tuesday, December 03, 2013

EDITORIAL >> GOP sheds light on FOI

The Arkansas Republican Party’s lawsuit to gain access to Gov. Mike Beebe’s patronage mail is easy to dismiss as more political grandstanding, which it is, but let’s not dismiss it. The state will be better—at least we hope it will be—if the Arkansas Supreme Court finally settles what part of the immense trove of documents in the governor’s office that people are allowed to see.

We’ve been through all this before when Michael Dale Huckabee was governor. Everyone remembers the frustrations of finding out what was happening in the government when the governor tucked government documents under his wing—gubernatorial “working papers”—and declared them off limits.

A Huckabee appointee to the state Parole Board who had racial and sexual jokes and photos on his state computer, refused to release his papers and Huckabee shielded them as his working papers when a Freedom of Information request was made. He lost a suit on the matter but still refused to release them. Gov. Beebe released the papers when he became governor. Then there was the crushing of the hard drives of computers in the governor’s office when Huckabee left office so that there would be no trace of many documents under his control.

It was not just Huckabee. Gov. Bill Clinton interpreted the working-papers exception in the Freedom of Information Act as broadly as possible to protect sensitive (to him) documents from prying eyes.

The immediate reason that the Republican executive director made the FOI request of Beebe and then sued when he refused is simple retaliation for all the FOI requests and litigation over papers and emails in the offices of two Republican officeholders, Lt. Gov. Mike Darr and Secretary of State Mark Martin. But tit for tat does not make the Republican lawsuit unwarranted.

Megan Tollett, the GOP operative, wants to see all the records in Beebe’s office relating to people seeking appointments to state boards and commissions since January 1, 2012, and those recommending people for those positions, as well as any correspondence from the governor or his staff about them. They will number many hundreds, perhaps thousands. Obviously, she hopes to find some embarrassing nexus between a job applicant or two and fund raising for Democratic political candidates. Tell us that never happens!

Beebe says correspondence in the governor’s office is clearly exempt from disclosure under the FOI law. He may be right but, no matter what her motive may be, the GOP operative should be allowed to make her case for public necessity that the letters be publicized and that the working-papers exemption is too broadly used by the government to stymie the public interest.

The Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1967 and the Supreme Court, in a ringing landmark opinion, said its provisions were always to be given the broadest interpretation with the public interest in mind. The law, the justices said unanimously, “was passed wholly in the public interest and is to be liberally interpreted to the end that its praiseworthy purposes may be achieved.”

It is to be interpreted liberally for the public, not for the public official. Let the lawsuit proceed.