A lack of transparency around public records during the former administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has now cost North Carolina taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars.
The state’s top elected officials voted Tuesday to pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by The News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer and others regarding the McCrory administration’s actions – or lack thereof – in responding to public records requests. The new administration of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also agreed to act more promptly in responding to records requests, and it disavowed the kinds of records fees that McCrory’s administration had been accused of demanding.
“We’re pleased that the Cooper administration has agreed to promptly fill public records requests,” N&O Executive Editor John Drescher said. “That's good for news organizations but it’s also good for any resident of the state who files a request for public documents.”
The N&O and other plaintiffs had argued that under McCrory, the state “regularly and repeatedly” violated public records law by not releasing records in a timely fashion, by requesting “unjustified and unreasonable” fees for looking up records, and by denying or concealing the existence of records that should have been public.
The settlement agreement included those allegations while also stating that the new Cooper administration has said it’s following the law and does not “condone those practices or policies” that McCrory’s administration had been accused of.
Mike Tadych, a lawyer for the Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych law firm that represented the News & Observer and other plaintiffs, said he’s glad the state agreed to pay the media companies’ $250,000 in legal fees.
“We are also grateful that the Cooper administration recognizes that North Carolina’s public records are the property of the people and that the former administration’s policies and practices restricting free access to public records were inconsistent with North Carolina law and long standing tradition of open government,” Tadych said. “We are privileged to represent the media and advocacy groups who came together to call those policies and practices into question.”
What were the companies suing over?
The lawsuit involved some relatively niche issues, but also access to records tied to major stories, including a Medicaid fraud investigation into former N.C. State football player Eric Leake, the exoneration of two innocent men who had been imprisoned for murder, and contacts between government officials and a major McCrory donor named Graeme Keith who got a lucrative private prison contract.
The group of companies and groups that sued also included media outlets WRAL, Indy Week, Alamance Weekly, Time Warner Cable, and Media General, plus political advocacy groups NC Policy Watch and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
When the coalition sued in 2015, McCrory’s office dismissed it as “a coalition of liberal news media outlets and advocacy groups” that were “exploiting the public records law and filing overly-broad and duplicative records requests that gum up the day-to-day operations of state government.”
“Open government and transparency is the only way to guarantee informed participation in our democracy,” said Kym Hunter, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney. “We have been pleased with the Cooper administration’s practices so far, which contrast starkly with the previous McCrory administration and the current Trump administration in Washington.”
The plaintiffs have not alleged any similar complaints against the Cooper administration, although the settlement made clear that it doesn’t prevent the media companies from suing over new allegations. The lawsuit against McCrory was filed more than two years into his term in office.
Cooper took office in January 2017, and the state and media companies reached their settlement in August 2017. The money – which will pay the companies’ legal fees – was approved at Tuesday’s Council of State meeting.
The Council of State is a group of nine elected officials that include Democrats like Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, as well as Republicans like Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. It has five Republicans and four Democrats.
They approved the settlement payment quickly before moving on to unrelated business. A spokesman for Cooper couldn’t immediately be reached for comment after the meeting.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran