There is a law in Maine similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act. It allows the public to access information that is produced through government agencies (with notable exceptions). Many states have similar laws on the books, all varying in one manner or another. One of these states is Massachusetts. Recently, the Boston Globe used the act in order to obtain the disciplinary record of asshat trooper Michael Galluccio. This gave me an idea.
I am currently taking a journalism class because I was too slow at signing up for the classes I actually wanted (though I am enjoying this class). One of my assignments is to obtain information using Maine’s FOIA. Until I saw the Galluccio story, I was at a loss of what to do. However, with the knowledge that disciplinary records are public information in one state, I decided to pursue the record of a particular officer at the Augusta Police Department in hopes that Maine law is sufficiently similar.
Backstory: Sometime ago in high school I got a parking ticket. I was parked at the end of a series of spaces where there were yellow diagonal lines. Clearly, I was illegally parked. I do not dispute that. However, on the ticket the officer wrote “sidewalk”, indicating that the reasoning for the ticket was that I was parked on the nearby sidewalk. This was not the case. 1) Those yellow lines would not extend to a public sidewalk. 2) I went to City Hall and obtained a property blueprint for my school. It was clear that I was not on the sidewalk. I brought this to the attention of several officers, including the one who issued the ticket. Of course, they refused to admit they were wrong. It would be one thing to give me a ticket I technically deserved. Unfortunately, what they did is issue me a ticket for an offense I did not commit. It would be like arresting someone for assault who actually committed theft. The sentence (for the sake of argument) may be roughly the same, but that does not mean that the thief is guilty of something else simply because the result is similar. Just the same, I was never guilty of parking on a sidewalk. The ticket is bunk.
So fast forward to my journalism class and the Globe article and I’ve got my idea. I am going to get the disciplinary record of the officer who issued me the incorrect ticket. I make out a FOIA letter (which is a courtesy, not a required form) and head on down to the APD. I am told by Lt. J. Christopher Read that personnel files are not public information. Bummer, right? Possibly. I follow this up with a call to the Globe. They say he is almost certainly wrong. I then also ask my instructor. She says basically the same thing. I go the next necessary step and find the exact wording in the act.
Personnel records pertaining to municipal, county, and state employees are for the most part confidential. For example, complaints, charges or accusations of misconduct, replies to those complaints, charges or accusations and any other information or materials that may result in disciplinary action are confidential. However, if disciplinary action is taken, the final written decision relating to that action is no longer confidential after the decision is completed if it imposes or upholds discipline.
It is clear. If a state employee is disciplined and there is a final written decision, it is public information. I am entitled to it. Now armed with this information, I make some corrections. First, I obtain the name of the offending officer. I originally only knew him as Officer 135. I now know his name is Richard Dubois. I also change my timeframe. I originally asked for all records dating to January 2001. I figured that covered a couple of years prior to my ticket and it also wasn’t so much as to be a pain in the butt. Because I was given incorrect information, however, I have updated my timeframe to date to either 1990 or Richard Dubois’ date of hiring; if they’re going to make me do extra work, I’m going to return the favor.
I bring my updated information back to the APD and speak with Lt. Read again. I present my new letter and read, verbatim, the part of the act I have bolded above. He tells me personnel files are off limits. I again inform him that the exception is when disciplinary action is taken. He tells me that is simply my interpretation and he has been “at this for 20 years”. In other words, the explicit text that says “if disciplinary action is taken, the final written decision relating to that action is no longer confidential” can be interpreted to mean something other than, well, that final written decisions related to disciplinary action are not confidential. One wonders what Lt. Read thinks it means. I guess 20 years on the job gives a person super special reading skills and insights. Or it makes them stubborn. Draw your own conclusion.
After it has become clear that Lt. Read is not going to give me the information to which I have a law-given right, I inform him that he needs to give me a written response within 5 business days because the law clearly states that to be the case. He says – and I quote – “I’m not going to do that.” I then ask him if he is aware that there is a $500 fine associated with violating the act and he says “That’s fine.” I presume that is code for “I acknowledge the fact you have just told me, but I do not want to admit that I am ignorant of a tremendous amount of this law.” I then ask Lt. Read if he wants a copy of my letter. My intention here is quite kind, if I do flatter myself: the man is wrong and I know he is wrong. If he checks with other supervisors or simply reads the law, he may realize this. Without my letter, he will not be able to contact me and will thus be forced into violating the law. He says he does not want it. I inform him that I have an identical letter addressed to the City Manager, William Bridgeo.
Once I leave, I head over to City Hall. Mr. Bridgeo was in a meeting but I gave all this information to the clerk/secretary/whathaveyou in the office. She asks for the name of the officer who refused to give a written response, makes copies of my letters along with my excerpt of the act, and tells me that, yes, a written response is required. (She said 10 days, but seemed unsure and soon qualified that it may depend on the information requested. At any rate, a written response is required.)
Further information: I originally saw Lt. Read on Monday, March 9, 2009. I saw him next, new letter (and different dates) in hand on Wednesday, March 11, 2009. He has 5 (or 10) business days to give me a written response to my first request. The second request is being handled by a more responsible entity.
Filed under: Politics and Social Tagged: | Abuse of Power, Augusta, Augusta Police Department, Boston, Boston Globe, Disciplinary Action, FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, Lt. J. Christopher Read, Maine, Massachusetts, Michael Galluccio, Richard Dubois