Lawmakers refuse to release records

Governor, courts met some requests despite exemption

THE LEGISLATURE, THE GOVERNOR, and the judiciary are all exempt in one way or another from the state’s Public Records Law, but the governor and the judiciary sometimes voluntarily comply with requests for information. By contrast, lawmakers take the view that their records are off-limits to the public.

CommonWealth tested the willingness of officials from these three branches of government to voluntarily release information by asking for various records. Gov. Charlie Baker refused to provide the information, although he has honored requests in the past. Members of the judicial branch did provide the information requested, while insisting they were not required to do so.

Eight of Beacon Hill’s most powerful lawmakers, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Harriette Chandler, refused to provide any of the requested records. DeLeo’s office gave no reason for his refusal. Senate counsel Jennifer Grace Miller, responding on behalf of Chandler, said the records were not subject to the Public Records Law. Reminded that Chandler could still voluntarily release the documents, Miller said: “That’s true, but we will not be providing them.”

DeLeo and Chandler, along with House majority and minority leaders Ronald Mariano and Bradley Jones, Senate majority and minority leaders Cynthia Creem and Bruce Tarr, and House and Senate ways and means committee chairs Jeffrey Sanchez and Karen Spilka, were all asked for copies of their 2017 calendar and visitors log.

Two other Beacon Hill officials declined when asked for contracts lawmakers negotiated with private parties. Sen. Michael Rodrigues, the chair of the Senate Committee on Ethics, declined to provide a copy of the contract his committee signed with the Boston law firm of Hogan Lovells to investigate the conduct of former Senate president Stanley Rosenberg.

Likewise, James Kennedy, the House’s chief legal counsel, declined to produce a copy of the contract the House negotiated with former attorney general Martha Coakley to assist in conducting an internal review of sexual harassment in the House.

Ralph Gants, the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, was asked for copies of his calendar and his visitors log for 2017. Gants provided his public calendar, but said through his spokeswoman that he does not maintain a private calendar for meetings or a visitors log.

Commissioner of Probation Edward Dolan, Jury Commissioner Pamela Wood, and Court Administrator Jonathan Williams were asked for their expense records for a recent one-year period. They all provided the records, but their lawyers noted they were not required to do so.

Baker was asked for his expense records and his visitors log. Cathy Judd-Stein, his deputy chief legal counsel, refused to provide the expense records and said Baker does not maintain a visitors log. She noted the governor responds to public records requests on a case-by-case basis, and has supplied public records in the past.

The Legislature passed and the governor signed a new public records law that went into effect in January 2017. It called for the creation of a special commission to recommend to the Legislature whether lawmakers, the judiciary, and the governor’s office should be brought under the law’s jurisdiction. The group has done little since it was formed over a year ago, meeting only once and missing the December 30, 2017, deadline for submitting a report.

Meet the Author
An attempt by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice pushed a case to the Supreme Judicial Court in a bid to clarify whether the administrative components of the court are subject to the Public Records Law. That effort was derailed when the Trial Court voluntarily agreed to provide information on hiring.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the reach of the Public Records Law should be expanded to all parts of state government. “When it comes to transparency, we need more than just lip service from our government officials,” Silverman says.  “We simply can’t trust officials to be forthcoming with information on their own.”