At the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, things can get pretty political. There is always the possibility that supporters of one party or candidate will seek access to public records that make an opponent look bad. On the other hand, those in office might try to use political favors to keep career-damaging public records from seeing the light of day.
The new chairman of the commission charged with enforcing the Connecticut FOI Act, Owen Eagan, said he's ready to keep abusers of the system at bay. "The importance of an open and transparent government cannot be overstated," said Eagan, a partner with Eagan, Donohue, Van Dyke & Falsey. "As chairman, I will strive to ensure that all complainants and respondents are given every opportunity to protect their rights."
Eagan, who was appointed to the position last week by Governor Dannel Malloy, brings the experience needed to ensure the public records laws are followed, and not abused, said Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel for the commission. "Owen is a very experienced attorney," Murphy said. "I know that he'll make sure people who are seeking records have their voices heard."
A former deputy mayor of West Hartford and practicing civil and criminal law attorney for 27 years, Eagan said he's used the public records law on behalf of his clients. "I first became familiar with the benefits of using the Freedom of Information Act to gain information beyond discovery many years ago, when we were trying to gain information from a municipality in a police brutality case," he said. "It proved to be very helpful."
Eagan was first appointed to the commission by former Governor M. Jodi Rell in 2009 and reappointed by Malloy. "When I first got involved with the commission, I thought this was not necessarily going to be a fun thing to do," he said. "I thought it was going to be going to be boring."
To the contrary, he said, "enforcing the FOI law deals with every aspect of what we do as lawyers."
For instance, he finds it especially interesting that while some requests for information appear to be cumbersome for the municipalities or government agencies to honor, "transparency of government is important to ensure officials are held accountable to the people."
Eagan can expect to have his hand full as his term begins. If lawsuits are filed, there are bound to be many public records requests related to the 2012 Newtown school slayings.
Under the state FOI Act, if an attorney, private citizen, news organization or anyone else seeks a public record, such as a police report, they start by making a request to the agency that holds the record. If the agency or government office denies their request, the burden is on the office to cite an exemption to the FOI law. For instance, police can lawfully refuse to release parts of investigative reports until an investigation is complete.
When someone chooses to challenge a government office for refusing to release a record, they bring their complaint directly to the FOIC. The nine-member commission then holds a hearing, in which a recommendation is made by the executive director. The commission votes on whether the documents should be released.
As chairman, Eagan will get an equal vote to other members of the commission.
Mitchell Pearlman, a retired First Amendment lawyer who was the first executive director of the commission when it was created in 1975, explained how politics was a concern from the beginning. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, he said, checks and balances were built into the process to guarantee independence from any political influence.
One of those checks and balances was the fact that appointments to the board are made alternately by the governor and legislature. Another check and balance was the creation of the commission's executive director position. As the executive director, Murphy presents recommendations to the commission on whether a public record should be released to the public or not.
Overseeing a staff of seven attorneys, Murphy holds a civil service position, and can only be terminated for cause. "The executive director runs the staff, and as the general counsel, advises the commission on the law," Pearlman said. "Generally speaking, the commission works closely with the executive director, and if they have any differences of opinion, they are hashed out in public meetings."
The commission had its toes stepped on earlier this year, when the legislature passed a law to keep homicide crime scene photos from release. Murphy said the statute that carved out an exemption for the Newtown photographs also created a task force to look into the law. She is on the task force, which is just starting to look into "the balance between the victims' rights and the public's right to access" in keeping the photos from view.•