Governor Martin O’Malley is politicizing the Maryland Public Information Act. Throughout his tenure O’Malley has violated the spirit of the law by either hiding behind the fig leaf of executive privilege or charging exorbitant fees for public information that ultimately prevent the disclosure the law calls for.
Now, with his hand picked successor, Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, facing a Democratic primary challenge from Attorney General Doug Gansler—O’Malley has suddenly embraced the spirit of disclosure.
Shortly before Gansler was set to announce Del. Joelene Ivey as his running mate, Washington Post reporter John Wagner broke a story based on Maryland State Police documents obtained under the MDPIA. Wagner’s story depicted Gansler as a reckless back seat driver, ordering troopers to turn on sirens, run red lights, bypass traffic jams, and speed en route to routine appointments. Wagner quoted a 2011 memo from the head of the state police executive protection unit Lt. Ardolini, which said, “…this extremely irresponsible behavior is non-stop and occurs on a daily basis. Attorney General Gansler has consistently acted in a way that disregards public safety, our Troopers safety and even the law.”
Forget for a moment that Wagner has a history of cheerleading for O’Malley or that this isn’t the first time the Washington Post was used as an instrument to attack O’Malley’s political rivals: the Gansler article raises some troubling questions, and they aren’t about the Attorney General’s bad passenger etiquette.
As someone who has filed many PIA requests, I can tell you when you submit one, you must have some idea of what you’re looking for, and you must also be specific in your request to the agency. The Attorney General’s Maryland Public Information Act Manual specifically states, “…the request must sufficiently identify the records that the applicant seeks.”
It’s the great irony of this story that lawyers from Gansler’s office attached to various administration agencies vet public records requests. The Attorney General is the lawyer for the state of Maryland and the Governor and his administration are his clients.
So, how did Wagner know what to look for? The O’Malley-Brown machine tipped him off.
Veteran state house reporter Len Lazarick said that Wagner’s piece “had the fingerprints of the O’Malley-Brown administration all over it.” Lazarick said that the administration is usually “tight lipped” over the executive protection unit, and that the state police report directly to O’Malley. However, in complete contradiction to its record of secrecy the O’Malley administration released to Wagner the dirt they wanted spilled on Gansler, and just before he announced Ivey as his running mate.
When a public records request is made, the agency queried has 30 days to respond. In my experience the officials charged with handling PIA requests usually take every bit of those 30 days to respond. However, when WBAL TV reporter David Collins asked for the same documents Wagner obtained, the state police responded to and fulfilled his request on the same day.
Now, compare the O’Malley administration’s newly found fidelity to the Maryland Public Information Act, with prior requests seeking information potentially damaging to the administration.
The Department of Housing and Community Development refused to release information about to syndicated columnist Marta Mossburg about the financially troubled developer chosen to build the agency’s new headquarters.
The Maryland Department of the Environment charged me over $2,700 for two requests regarding the environmental groups involved in writing state climate regulations.
The Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation fought me tooth and nail to hide emails between it and the Governor’s office regarding a scrubbed employment report, even though its own documents revealed the governor’s closest advisors were involved in the cover up.
The State Highway Administration denied Fox 45’s request for documents regarding charge backs to state contractors who are tardy in completing projects.
In a separate request, Fox 45 asked a list the number of PIA requests and how much it charged to fulfill them; Gansler’s office sent the station a bill for $2,500 to complete the request.
Gansler responded to Fox 45 saying, “The fact of the matter is you shouldn't have to make a public information request for a lot of material that should be public anyway.”
If the Maryland State Police had documents detailing Anthony Brown’s rude back seat driving, would John Wagner be submitting a request for them? Would they see the light of day?
It’s just another sign of corrupt one-party rule in Maryland that the O’Malley-Brown machine can abuse the Maryland Public Information Act—preventing disclosure to protect itself while releasing what it wants to punish it’s enemies. Perhaps Maryland's political press corps should focus more on holding public rulers accountable and less on the campaign horse race.
On the Center for Public Integrity’s Corruption Risk Report Card, Maryland received an overall grade of D- and an F for access to public information. The report said this about how Maryland treats access to public information.
While Maryland's Public Information Act theoretically grants broad access to public records, critics say vague exemption language allows government agencies to deny information requests for almost any reason. With no overall oversight mechanism, each state agency handles its own public information requests, with its own response and billing practices. If a request is denied, the only redress is appealing to the same denying agency official or initiating a costly court challenge. In practice, this means that many public information compliance issues go unresolved.
Both O’Malley and Gansler talk a great deal about their commitment to open government, but in reality they are both responsible for the charade that is “open government” in Maryland.