This Sunshine Week, we are calling on our readers to contact their state legislators to voice their support for a proposed update to the Massachusetts public records law.
At The Bay State Examiner, we do much of our news gathering through public records requests. That may sound straightforward, but the Massachusetts public records law is broken. So broken that it can be more or less ignored at will by any agency or department in the state, without fear of consequence. To conclude our Sunshine Week stories we want to share some of our most memorable attempts to obtain public records.
The Yo Dawg
It’s clear that the Massachusetts State Police don’t want us to have the Internal Affairs (IA) files for the 49 officers who’ve earned the most complaints over the last four years. Their method of stonewalling our records request was unique in our experience.
The State Police shirked their lawful duty to provide a fee estimate within ten days by demanding we pay them a separate fee to determine the fee that they would then charge us for the records.
Yo dawg, I heard you like fees so I put a fee in your fee so you can pay fees while you pay fees... Xzibit would be proud.
The Twisted Sister We’re not gonna take it! Hell no, we’re not gonna take it!
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office made our list by straight up refusing to accept two records requests, as required by law. Instead of accepting the requests, Lieutenant Detective Bernard Greene and two other officers come out and threatened to physically remove me from the building for calmly insisting that our requests be taken.
Luckily, on our way out of the building, we handed the requests off to a passing employee, who took it inside and managed to get it into the relevant inbox. Later, the DA’s office responded... but only to one of them.
Chicopee sent us a head-scratcher earlier this year. When we pointed out that a request we’d made was overdue, Chicopee's city solicitor sent us an epic letter explaining that they were responding to say they had already responded to the request when they told us their response was that they would respond. They then claimed that the acknowledgment that they received our request was a response and that it was not overdue. About a month later they claimed not to have any of the records we requested, despite some of those records already being publicly available.
We have since been instructed not to send the Chicopee police any more records requests. Naturally, we immediately requested records on how well-trained their record keepers are, as well as the department's official policy on the records law. Chicopee claims these records do not exist.
So sue me
Chief Dan Racine’s Fall River Police Department would not take a verbal request (which they are required to by law) and tried to overcharge us when we mailed a request in. We appealed to the Supervisor of Records and actually won. The Supervisor of Records ordered the Fall River police to comply with the request and to go back to kindergarten for retraining on the records law.
Racine responded by telling a local journalist (not us, mind you) that he wouldn’t comply with the order and claimed he was above the Supervisor of Records' oversight. He also invited us to sue him, sinking all the dollars, hours, and frustration we wished into that legal proceeding.
We declined, and to date the Supervisor of Records has failed to enforce his compliance order.
Ongoing pretend litigation
The City of Lowell pulled a good one recently. We asked them to turn over records - records that had been presented in a public meeting - related to the death of a young woman in police custody. The city solicitor's office replied that the records, including the minutes of the public meeting, were exempt because of ongoing litigation.
Now, the open meeting law is clear that once materials are presented in a public meeting, those materials are public records. Such items cannot be lawfully withheld from a records request.
This would be a flagrant misuse of the exemption on a good day, but the part that elevates Lowell's claim to “memorable” status is that there was no lawsuit filed in the matter. We know the lawyer who represents the dead woman's next of kin and confirmed within a few minutes that there was no suit filed.
This matter is currently under appeal.
A day late and a dollar short
When we dropped off a records request at the Lynn police station, the woman behind the counter informed us that the one guy who handles records for the department was on vacation, so it would probably be a while...
Sure enough, the deadline for a lawful response came and went without a peep.
We made an internal complaint about this violation of the public records law (which is a misdemeanor) to the Lynn Police Department. The IA report came back that, sure, the department violated the law, but it did so to provide me with an accurate detailed fee estimate. By law, they have to provide a good faith, detailed fee estimate within ten days, but the claim was made all the better by the fact that their overdue estimate also lacked very basic details.
Oh, and it claimed that it would take 22 hours for someone in their office to press print.
When a squid is startled it ejects ink to blind whatever it feels threatened by, and the MSP (when not Yo Dawg-ing) do something similar. When we requested the IA file of trooper Kenneth Harold, the MSP charged us hundreds of dollars. When we surprised them by paying this oversized fee, they got nervous and spewed ink all over the records. The end result was piles of totally redacted pages.
The Carly Rae Jepsen
As far as we can tell, the Boston Police Department do not handle records requests lawfully. Like, ever. They have a cut-and-paste response claiming that, due to the number of requests they receive, they will not respond for a indeterminate amount of time. But once in a while they raise their stonewalling game to the next level.
The Boston police have another noted ongoing issue with Massachusetts law, namely that they don't understand the wiretapping statute. The Boston police have falsely arrested a handful of people over that last decade and have been repeatedly sued, which leads one to wonder why they continue to misinterpret the law.
When we requested their training video on the wiretap statute, they went all Carly on us. After the usual months of delays and appeals, the department's media person actually sent a series of relatively incomprehensible emails demanding that we call him – which we did – and also that we not call him, and that he wanted to talk to us about the request, but that the phone call was only to introduce himself...?
...And this is crazy, but here's my number, so call me maybe?
After months of stonewalling, we finally got a response saying that our request would only take one hour to fill. We submitted a complaint to Boston police department's IA and never heard back. It was worth the effort because the training video is... Well, enjoy.
Meet the new boss
We miss Wild William Flanagan, the ex-mayor of Fall River. In fact we miss him so much that we still want his emails. We first requested Flanagan's emails back when he was in office... You know, before he started allegedly pulling guns and trying to frame his political opponents. Anyhow, gangster boss that he was (allegedly), Wild Will never gave us a response. Upon appeal, his office claimed it didn't need to respond because the Fall River police had already given us information about the topic.
After the voters of Fall River booted Flanagan, we requested the emails again. The new mayor has not responded.
Meet the new boss; same as the old gun-toting (allegedly) wacko... and we won't get responded to again!
Many of our (mis)adventures have yet to be resolved because it takes months for the Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin's office to issue decisions on records appeals, and those decisions can seemingly be disregarded. Galvin recently gave an interview where he explained that it is not true that his office takes months when according to Galvin (yes, in the same interview) his office generally answers appeal... within a 90 day period.
Until there is a functional public records law that is actually enforced, we'll have fun tales of epic fails from across Massachusetts. Please contact your state legislators before Sunshine Week is over so we can stop this sort of systemic failure.