The Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth's office ruled yesterday that the Massachusetts State Police cannot charge a separate "research fee" to produce a fee estimate for a public records request. The ruling came in response to an appeal from The Bay State Examiner. After we requested copies of the internal affairs files for 49 state troopers, Jaclyn Zawada, an attorney with the State Police, said that producing a fee estimate for the public records request was so burdensome that they would need to be paid a "non-refundable research fee" of $710.50 first.
Zawada said it would take the State Police approximately 24 and a half hours to determine what the fee for the records should be. She said if it takes longer, the State Police might charge an even higher "research fee."
Zawada said the State Police might not impose the "research fee" if we "narrow[ed]" the request "significantly," which we declined to do.
In previous correspondence, Glenn M. Rooney, another attorney with the State Police, said that estimating the fee for internal affairs files is labor intensive because they are kept on paper and a State Police employee must count the number of pages by hand.
The public records law allows state and local government agencies to charge fees for the time spent searching for public records and redacting exempt information. It also allows government agencies to charge for costs associated with preparing copies, such as the cost of paper. Government agencies are required to produce fee estimate for public records requests at no cost by under the regulations promulgated by the Public Records Division of the secretary's office.
According to the regulations, "A custodian shall provide a written, good faith estimate of the applicable copying, search time and segregation time fees to be incurred prior to complying with a public records request where the total costs are estimated to exceed ten dollars" (emphasis added).
In addition to refusing to provide us with a fee estimate, the State Police refused to deal with our request in a timely manner. The public records law requires that government agencies comply with all records requests within 10 days, but the State Police waited 46 days before telling us about the "research fee," then another 3 days before telling us how much the "research fee" came to.
More time has passed since then and at this point the State Police have managed to stonewall the request, which was first filed on November 24, 2014, for about four months.
The records request is related to our investigation of how the State Police address allegations of misconduct within their ranks. Last year, we obtained a document listing the number of complaints against each state trooper over a four year period. The 49 state troopers whose internal affairs files we requested received the highest number of complaints during this period.
The troopers all received four or more complaints each, an average of at least one complaint per year. These troopers make up only about 2.23% of the department, but received nearly 25% of the complaints during this period.
Since we made the request, one of the troopers, who was already on leave from his job at the time, was convicted of indecent assault and battery and sentenced to one to two years in prison. State Police Colonel Timothy Alben confirmed at the time that the State Police were moving to fire Trooper Jason M. Willard over the conviction.
The secretary's office has ordered the State Police to produce a fee estimate within 10 days of the ruling. If the State Police do not comply with the order from the secretary's office, we will ask for the case to be referred to the attorney general's office for both civil and criminal action.
The secretary's office has not referred a case to the attorney general's office for several years due to a rift between the two agencies, but newly elected attorney general Maura Healey recently told The Boston Globe that she plans to patch up the relationship and make public records enforcement a priority.
The state troopers whose internal affairs files we have requested are as follows:
Arisetty, Hari K Arone, John B Augusta, Mark D Baker, Joseph T Baptiste, Walter Boszko, Anthony T Breault, Paul C Brown, Christopher M Brown, Jonathan L Connell, John W Conway, Matthew B Croteau, Matthew E Duggan, John P Emmett, Kevin D English, Peter A Farrell, James F Flaherty, Scott A Freniere, Robert K Frigon, Richard H Gale, Daniel R Gentile, John J Grigg, Justin W Heywood, Daralyn A Holden, Nicholas J Isom, Michael A Johnson, Gerald D King, Daniel S LaRocco, Steven A LePage, John D Lynch, Dennis M Mansi, Carolyn M Martin, James W McCarthy, John P McSweeney, William Murphy, Brendan J O'Brien, Kevin M O'Neill, Kevin B Orlando, Nunzio Richards, Michael E Schipelliti, Paul Solomon, Shawn J Sternfield, Jason H Stuckey, Samantha L Tanguay, Craig M Tudryn, Theodore J Vrona, Steve E Webb-Johnson, Adrian C Willard, Jason M Yagodzinski, Jason C