State is slow on records access

SBI revelations brought change

Staff WritersNovember 11, 2010 

  • The News & Observer has requested several types of records from the State Bureau of Investigation that have yet to be produced. A sampling:

    E-mails between several key SBI leaders and officials in the Attorney General's Office. Requested in June. Two batches were produced in July and August, and none since.

    Audit of personal use of SBI vehicles. Requested Aug. 17. Nothing produced.

    Audits of internal crime database. Requested Aug. 25. Nothing produced.

    Employee travel records, Requested Oct. 19. Nothing produced.

During his decades in the General Assembly and at the Department of Justice, Attorney General Roy Cooper has spoken as a champion of open government.

But as reports of misconduct and incompetence at the State Bureau of Investigation have emerged, the sunshine has dimmed at the N.C. Department of Justice.

Cooper oversees the SBI. For months, The News & Observer has asked Cooper's office to release:

FBI audits of the SBI's criminal information system: 77 days and counting.

An internal audit of agency vehicle use: 85 days and counting.

Travel records for a senior SBI official: 22 days and counting.

Cooper noted in an interview this week that his office has provided thousands of pages of public records to The N&O over the past months. He said his office is continuing to work diligently on the requests, which he called voluminous.

"The department has a responsibility to ensure it doesn't risk public safety or break personnel law by improperly releasing criminal investigative files or confidential personnel information or legal work that threatens homeland security data or other public safety issues," Cooper said.

The public records law requires that public agencies must make records available promptly, said Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh lawyer who represents The N&O. Promptly is often defined by circumstances, Stevens said: How voluminous are the records? Where are the records stored? Must they be reviewed in order to redact information that's not considered public?

Stevens said the Attorney General's Office has failed to produce records promptly.

"Are you justified in thinking that there is some stonewalling and some dragging of feet going on here?" Stevens said. "Yes, absolutely, you are justified."

Records handed over

The N&O began investigating the SBI following the exoneration of Greg Taylor by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission in February. Taylor spent 17 years in prison for a Wake County murder that he didn't commit.

Since then, public information officers and lawyers with the Attorney General's Office have made available, and photocopied, thousands of pages of records.

The News & Observer used them and other records in August to publish "Agents' Secrets," a four-part series on the SBI that showed some agents bullying vulnerable defendants and some lab analysts pushing past the accepted boundaries of science to please prosecutors. After the series, an outside audit commissioned by Cooper severely criticized the SBI lab for withholding the results of blood tests.

Cooper promised more openness than ever. He said he would turn over all documents to lawyers in cases potentially botched by withheld results of blood tests. He promised to put bureau policies online for all to see. He said he'd consider pushing for a change in the law obliging prosecutors to share all records in criminal cases by making the 2004 law apply retroactively.

This promise of transparency was in character for Cooper, who has long championed sunshine in government.

"Open government is the foundation of freedom," Cooper said in 1995 after shepherding a public records law through the General Assembly.

As attorney general, Cooper published a guide to North Carolina's public records law for the public and state employees.

"The spirit with which public officials work to comply with the law is as important as the law itself," Cooper says in the introduction.

On Monday, Cooper's office published an opinion saying government agencies must release the termination letters of all fired public employees when requested.

Flow has trickled

Despite the promises of openness, the release of records from Cooper's Department of Justice has slowed to a trickle since August.

For example, The N&O requested FBI audits of the SBI's criminal information system on Aug. 25. The Department of Justice said the requested material consisted of 160,000 pages. The newspaper responded that it did not want the tens of thousands of documents that were audited, just the findings. That would consist of a few hundred pages at most.

On Tuesday, Cooper repeated his staff's claim, saying the request consisted of 90,000 pages.

"Everybody is working hard on it," Cooper said. The requests "just keep coming and coming and coming and I'm not complaining about it. I've directed them to respond as quickly as possible and they are going to keep working on it."

It's not just The News & Observer having trouble getting records from Cooper's office.

"My experience with public records requests has not been very good," said Don Carrington, a writer for The Carolina Journal, which is published by the conservative John Locke Foundation. "I usually call [public affairs director] Noelle Talley, who doesn't answer the phone, and then I eventually get an e-mail saying they can't help me."

joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4516

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