Globe suits come with deep pockets

There was a time not so long ago that newspapers, from big to small, had the resources available to ensure that state and local agencies complied with open meeting and public records statutes designed to keep everybody transparent and accountable. Having an attorney on retainer and speed dial guaranteed swift action and more often than not compliance by officials not willing to spend precious tax dollars on court action.

But those days are long gone and public officials know it. That’s why requests for records are often met with delays, refusals, and exorbitant costs to thwart any attempt by media members to gain access to what would normally be publicly available documents. Reporters and editors can play out the string of bureaucratic appeals but when it comes to spending the diminishing dollars on going to court, that’s where the line is drawn.

That’s why it is — and should be — heartening that the Boston Globe has filed suit against several police departments and state agencies over their refusal to release records involving officers arrested for drunken driving. The action has paid immediate dividends with the Boston Police Department, one of the defendants, announcing it will release the names of officers charged with criminal violations going forward.

It is the fifth suit the Globe has filed against state and city agencies since last year, so far with mixed results. A suit against the Board of Registration in Medicine over redactions in reports about complaints against physicians caused the agency to cease that practice, showing the power of litigious persuasion. But suits against the Department of Public Health, the MBTA retirement trust fund, and the city of Boston over their refusal to release records are all still pending.

With billionaire owner John Henry writing the checks, the decision is a relatively easy one for the Globe. But it’s a battle few are willing to fight anymore, despite the likelihood of prevailing when a newspaper takes its case before a judge. Case in point: the clergy sex abuse scandal that blew open in 2001 when the Globe, then owned by the New York Times, filed suit to open up decades of closed court cases that were settled with an agreement of confidentiality.

The Brockton Enterprise has been dogged in going after public records but their efforts stop short of bringing in counsel. Enterprise reporters have been seeking police records of an investigation into possible criminal actions by a city building inspector but city officials have refused. On Thursday, citing the same rationale used by police departments being sued by the Globe, Brockton argued that such records are protected by the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information Act. Brockton’s legal counsel appealed to the Secretary of State to back the city and it’s probably going to end there because the Enterprise, owned by the notoriously penny-pinching GateHouse Media, is unlikely to spend the money to go to court.

The paper is also trying to pry records out of Bridgewater State University regarding the allegations of child rape by a student intern at the school’s daycare center. School officials sent the Enterprise a bill for more than $60,000 for the requested emails between the center’s now-fired director and school officials. But there the Enterprise may have some assistance, as Boston attorney Carmen Durso, one of the lawyers representing victims in the clergy sex abuse scandal, filed suit on behalf of the parents of four children who attended the daycare. The suit seeks many of the records the Enterprise is looking for, so, if the legal challenge is successful, the records may end up as part of the court record.

But for media, especially newspapers, it’s difficult to spend the money pursuing legal challenges for public records. How important are the records to the story and the public discussion versus how important is the principle?  A big part of the equation is Massachusetts is one of only three states that does not allow plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees when bringing successful court actions.

Most media err on the side of fiscal prudence, validating the decision by officials to call their bluff. The Globe, however, has the money to go to court.

–JACK SULLIVAN

 

BEACON HILL

Sen. Thomas McGee, the Senate’s point man on transportation issues and also the head of the state’s Democratic Party, says Gov. Charlie Baker doesn’t need a fiscal control board to run the MBTA because he now has a revamped MassDOT board. But McGee hedges on whether lawmakers will give Baker another tool he wants — the ability to reject an arbitrator’s union contract award. (State House News)

Top Massachusetts Democrats huddled last week at a Boston hotel to plot political strategy in a new landscape that features a Republican in the top job on Beacon Hill for the first time since 2006. (Boston Globe)

Sen. Brian Joyce, mired in controversy over mixing his public and professional duties, says he will support or file a budget amendment that benefits one of his law firm’s clients, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton. (State House News Service)

Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to expand the earned income tax credit has wide support, but there’s no agreement on how to pay for it. (Gloucester Times)

In continuing fallout from the botched 2013 rollout of the state health insurance website, state officials are facing the daunting task of tracking down 1.2 million people and getting them to complete a 26-page form to determine their continued eligibility for Medicaid coverage. (Boston Globe)

Pioneer Institute to Bill GalvinOur bad! (Boston Globe)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The national My Brother’s Keeper program, which aims to improve outcomes for young minority men, comes to Boston. (Bay State Banner)

Boston paid $36 million over the last 10 years to settle 2,000 claims and lawsuits related to alleged police misconduct. (Boston Globe)

The Globe points to more missteps in the handling of the zoning issues related to the addition state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is putting on her Jamaica Plain home.

MARATHON BOMBING TRIAL

As the jury in the death penalty phase of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial returns to deliberations today, Dic Donahue, the Transit Police officer who nearly bled to death after being shot in the Watertown gun battle with the Tsarnaev brothers, is returning to work and has been promoted to sergeant. (Boston Globe)

CASINOS

A group hoping to open a casino in Somerset withdrew their application with the state Gaming Commission Thursday but selectmen, taking on the role of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, say it’s just a flesh wound. (Herald News) Meanwhile, the Gaming Commission has given the developers of a proposed New Bedford waterfront casino the okay to move ahead in their bid despite not having their financial backing in place. (Standard-Times)

The Mashpee Wampanoag take issue with the Plainridge slots parlor, saying the facility’s electronic blackjack games don’t belong at a slots parlor.

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Nebraska orders a state of emergency over bird flu. (Time)

The Colombian government, despite protests by US officials, has halted a decades-long program of spraying coca bean crops used in the illegal drug trade, citing concerns that the herbicide used in the aerial spraying causes cancer. (New York Times)

ELECTIONS

While there’s been plenty of talk about W. and his Iraq adventure being a noose around around Jeb Bush’s neck, Joe Battenfeld thinks he’s the kid brother’s ace-in-the-hole and that Jeb ought get him to New Hampshire to campaign with him — in a hurry. (Boston Herald)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A North Carolina developer has finalized the purchase of Southfield, the stalled mixed-use project at the former naval air base in South Weymouth. (Patriot Ledger)

Some big organizations are starting to cancel bookings at the state convention center in the wake of Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to put the brakes on a $1 billion expansion of the facility. (Boston Globe)

RELIGION

A judge has ordered a group of protesters to vacate a Scituate Catholic church where they have held a vigil for more than a decade to try to stop the Archdiocese from closing and selling the parish. The group is seeking a stay of the order. (Patriot Ledger)

EDUCATION

A planned lawsuit seeking to raise the charter cap will essentially argue that Boston district schools are providing an inferior education. (CommonWealth)

Brockton school officials are sending out 173 layoff notices to teachers today as declining city revenues and a growing budget gap triggered severe belt-tightening. (The Enterprise)

California Gov. Jerry Brown has reached a deal to send more money to University of California schools in exchange for a tuition freeze for residents. The catch is that out-of-state students, already paying among the highest rates in the nation to attend the state’s public schools, will face an 8 percent tuition hike. (New York Times)

A tidy sum for Harvard‘s ex-endowment manager, who earned almost $10 million in 2013. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH CARE

A new report suggests how local groups can help fight the opioid crisis. (Telegram & Gazette)

Paul Levy reports on a change in leadership at struggling Carney Hospital in Dorchester, and uses the occasion to suggest that his old nemesis, the SEIU, take over and run the facility.

Culture clash: The Boston Business Journal explores why the Boston Medical Center-Tufts merger did not materialize.

TRANSPORTATION

A remote control system designed to slow speeding trains and potentially avert crashes was installed but not operating in the section where an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people. (U.S. News & World Report)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A convicted drug dealer released because of the state drug lab scandal has been arrested on new drug charges, a sign of the ripple effects the case is having, according to Plymouth DA Timothy Cruz. (Boston Herald)

MEDIA

Politico analyzes the George Stephanopoulos mess.

PASSINGS

The King of the Blues, B.B. King, has died at 89. (New York Times)