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W.Va. ranks among top half in FOIA compliance

Public officials in other states hem and haw much like their West Virginia counterparts when confronted with open records requests.

An Illinois sheriff, for instance, crumpled up a copy of that state's Freedom of Information Act in front of a researcher who wanted public arrest records.

"I don't have to tell you nothing," the sheriff said.

In Indiana, a county schools superintendent fired off an angry fax complaining to the boss of a researcher after she asked about the basketball coaches' salaries.

When a California researcher asked for daily crime logs, the local police official demanded she sign an affidavit swearing that she had never been arrested within his department's jurisdiction.

Researchers have tested open records and Freedom of Information laws with public officials in half the states since 1997. When the percentage of officials who complied with the laws were compared, West Virginia ranked 10th among the 25 states audited so far.

About 52 percent of Mountain State public officials provided the records during the researchers' visits. Another 12 percent released the records after receiving a written FOIA request.

"West Virginia did no better, nor no worse, than other states where audits have occurred," said Terry Wimmer, the Shott Chair of Journalism at West Virginia University and a coordinator of last year's review.

"Offices such as clerks and commissions respond more readily because they have frequent dealings with public record requests," Wimmer wrote in his report on the state's FOIA audit. "Law enforcement agencies in most states are reluctant to share information with the public they serve."

Though their duty is to enforce the law, sheriffs' and police departments violated the public's right to access records far more routinely than the other government officials approached during these audits:

An Arizona police officer filed a "suspicious person" report on the researcher who asked for public records. The officer also ran a background check, tracked the researcher to three other government offices and reported him to his chief.

In Moultie County, Ill., a deputy pulled over one researcher after he visited a government office in 1999 and lectured him on "proper small-town behavior."

The Pike County, Ind., sheriff's department copied down the driver's license and vehicle plate numbers for a researcher during her visit and conducted a background check. They later "asked her why she was not driving her own car," and "told her to keep quiet about drug arrests on the log," the report from that state said.

Edwards County Sheriff Oren Smith wadded up the FOI law, after the researcher would not identify himself. "I don't have to tell you nothing if you don't tell me nothing. I wouldn't come back, neither," he warned.

Open records laws in the states vary. New Jersey has one of the oldest and most-criticized laws, the 1999 audit in that state said. Half the public officials approached by researchers refused to release records; only one-fifth of the police officials who were queried complied.

Connecticut, on the other hand, boasts of its open records laws and its one-of-a-kind Freedom of Information Commission to oversee them. But a 1999 review revealed "a damning consistency of noncompliance" by public officials.

Researchers in several states conducted follow-up reviews, to check for any changes after the barrage of negative press coverage and outcries by leading public officials. The results were mixed:

A follow-up audit in Kansas "showed a drastic improvement," researchers there reported. "However, many of the departments charged outrageous fees for photocopies." The Lincoln County sheriff, for example, charged $3.20 for a one-page report.

Missouri's state auditor, Claire McCaskill, conducted the review of that state's open records laws, in 1999 and again last year. Nearly half the public officials flunked her initial exam. When she revisited them in April, they had actually gotten worse; the compliance rate dropped from 56 percent to about 52 percent.

Students at Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy tested Rhode Island's laws three times between 1997 and 2000. Though the students found improvements over the years, Rhode Island police stiff-armed requests for public records about two-thirds of the time.

"In Cranston," the second study said, "the researcher encountered officers who haggled with her about the nature of her request, gave her contradictory excuses as to why she could not obtain the information, and made snide comments in the background that she could overhear."

To contact staff writer Lawrence Messina, use e-mail or call 348-4869.


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