DiZoglio defends releasing audits with redactions

Gains support from state public records supervisor

THE STATE AUDITOR’S office regularly publishes its audits of state agencies, providing Beacon Hill officials with a review of their performance and giving the general public insight into how Massachusetts government is being run.

Most audits are public documents, but over the last six months four audits have been released with major redactions. All four were prepared by former auditor Suzanne Bump, with three of them being released by the current auditor, Diana DiZoglio.  The audits were of three county sheriff offices — Plymouth, Barnstable, and Suffolk — and the Merrimack Valley Regional Transportation Authority.

The redactions have raised eyebrows among public records activists and prompted a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which alleged that the auditor should not be concealing the findings of audits.

“Even if there is underlying confidential information that informed the audits, the audit results should not be confidential,” the ACLU said in a press release. “Our government should always strive for transparency and openness — especially when it relates to the life and death of people in its custody.”

In an interview, DiZoglio said she would like to release the audits without any redactions but worries that doing so would increase the vulnerability of the agencies.

“To do so would mean jeopardizing the security specific to cybersecurity issues and cyber attacks in the agencies being audited,” she said. “So it is our office’s responsibility to make sure that we’re not identifying cybersecurity risks to hackers and others who want to cause harm.”

Under public records law, the redactions are based on a claim of the so-called “terrorist” exemption, which allows for the “withholding of certain records which, if released, will likely jeopardize public safety or cybersecurity,” according to a guide issued by the supervisor of public records.

At the request of CommonWealth, as part of an appeal, the supervisor of public records privately reviewed the complete audit of the Plymouth County sheriff’s office and concluded the auditor’s office acted properly in redacting the records.  All three sheriffs’ audits, as well as the audit of the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, redacted the records based on the same claim of the so-called “terrorist” exemption.

A court could rule differently in the ACLU lawsuit, which is still in play.

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The three audits of the sheriffs’ offices dealt with health care issues such as whether the office provided medical screenings to inmates on arrival and health appraisals within seven days of admission.  The audit of the transit authority addressed procedures for processing complaints from individuals with disabilities.

Although the redaction of audits is stirring controversy now, it has been done before. A check of audits dating back to 2001 found four other instances in which audits have been redacted, including reports on the Merit Rating Board (2018), the State Police (2019), and the MBTA and the Department of Transitional Assistance (2020).