Under the Dome

News groups win round in NC public records fight

Gov. Pat McCrory
Gov. Pat McCrory

The McCrory administration has lost a round in its court fight against news organizations that contend the state has systematically defied its own public records law.

That law requires that most government records be made available to the public as “promptly as possible.”

But a lawsuit, filed by the Observer, the News & Observer of Raleigh, and several other news organizations and public interest groups, alleges that the administration has shown “patterns and practices of delay, obfuscation, non-responsiveness, foot-dragging and stonewalling.”

Gov. Pat McCrory and his administration had asked the court to dismiss the news organizations’ complaint.

In a ruling last week, Superior Court Judge John Craig denied that request, saying the news agencies are entitled to collect evidence to help the court determine whether the government is improperly delaying requests for public records.

For instance, the news agencies have asked to depose several of the state’s public information officers.

The governor’s team said it would appeal the judge’s order. And on Monday, it filed a motion asking the court to prohibit the news organizations from deposing witnesses while it prepares that appeal.

The governor’s office has said that the administration is a “champion of transparency and fair and legitimate news gathering.”

“This administration has fulfilled thousands of records requests at the expense of countless staff hours and has hired additional personnel to handle the volume of requests,” McCrory spokesman Graham Wilson wrote in a statement Tuesday.

‘Property of the people’

But open government experts contend McCrory’s team is routinely stalling on requests for public records.

“We’re saying in our complaint that there is a systematic delay in processing an enormous amount of public records requests,” said Mike Tadych, one of the media lawyers who are representing plaintiffs. “We’re looking to determine why. Is it intentional? Is it incompetence? Is it a lack of training? Is it a lack of resources?”

Among the cases cited in the lawsuit was a 2012 request by the Observer for a database from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which included information about deaths since 2001.

“The complete database was provided only after a year’s delay, numerous reiterations of the Observer’s request, and threats of legal action,” the lawsuit states.

In his recent order, Judge Craig noted that “public records are the property of the people” and that records requests must be fulfilled “without regard for the motive or the identity of the requester.”

In a July 21, 2015, news release, the governor’s office contended that some media organizations are filing overly broad and duplicative records requests – and that “a coalition of liberal news media outlets and advocacy groups have taken this exploitation to a new level with a coordinated lawsuit that ignores the facts.”

Saying he viewed that news release with “concern and some distaste,” the judge said it appeared to be an effort to “politicize this legal proceeding.”

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex