Bill to change public records law would ‘absolutely destroy’ public access, critic says

Jefferson Parish Sheriff doesn’t want to pay when he loses court cases

By: - May 5, 2021 8:59 pm
Centralized sales tax commission approved by lawmakers

The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

A House committee approved a bill Wednesday that an attorney for news organizations  said would block the public’s access to government records as it would no longer require courts to award legal fees when government officials withhold records from a person who rightfully should have access to them. 

Under Louisiana’s current public records law, officials who are ordered by a court to turn over public records —  including footage from police body-worn cameras — have to pay the legal fees of the person or organization who went to court to request that footage. However, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced legislation Wednesday that would require an official to pay those legal fees only “if the judge determines there was no reasonable basis for the denial.”

Attorney Scott Sternberg, who represents multiple media organizations in Louisiana and the Louisiana Press Association, said during Wednesday’s committee hearing that the threat of paying legal fees is what makes officials comply with the state’s public records law. Removing the financial penalty that comes with denying public records, he said, “would absolutely destroy” the public’s ability to litigate and access any government records.

Later, Sternberg wrote on Twitter, “The testimony that this is about body cameras is just not accurate. This bill is about making sure that you, citizens, have a harder time getting access to your records. Period.”

Rep. Rodney Lyons, a Democrat from Harvey, said Wednesday that he introduced House Bill 470 at the request of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto who said he has lost court cases for withholding public records in an attempt to protect someone’s privacy.

“I made a reasonable decision that (releasing that footage) was somebody’s privacy rights,” Lopinto testified Wednesday. “The judge overruled me…But when I’m overruled by the judge, I shouldn’t be responsible for the attorney’s fees from the other side.”

The first half of Lyons’ bill focuses on body-cam footage, but the second half refers generally to “a person (who) seeks the right to inspect, copy, or reproduce a record or to receive or obtain a copy or reproduction of a public record.”

When a person asks a government agency for a particular record such as a police report or body-cam footage, but is denied, that person can choose to sue for access, and if successful, the judge will order the agency to pay the person’s attorney fees. But if Lyons’ bill passes, in order to be awarded those legal fees, the person would have to prove that the agency was acting unreasonably when it withheld the record.

Sternberg said that despite current law that says those who have to go to court to access records are to be awarded legal fees, they often only get a fraction of those fees. Such was the case when Attorney General Jeff Landry sued Advocate reporter Andrea Gallo after she requested a record from his office. The judge awarded only a portion of the billable hours submitted by Sternberg, who successfully defended Gallo.

Sternberg said Lyons’ bill would rewrite a law that was created by an entire commission of lawmakers and other experts four years ago who debated the matter at length. Sternberg served on that commission.

With no financial consequences, officials would no longer have reason to carefully consider the public’s right to know, Sternberg said. Furthermore, he said, members of the public would potentially be on the hook for thousands of dollars if they have to hire lawyers to obtain records that they already have a right to obtain — even if they win the case.

Morgan Lamandre, a victim’s advocate with Baton Rouge nonprofit STAR (Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response), testified against the bill Wednesday. Lamandre pointed out that several LSU students who were victims of sexual assault were denied copies of their own reports they had filed with campus police.  

“This is going to affect people who can’t afford an attorney to go to court to obtain these documents and these records,” Lamandre said. “We’re dealing with every single type of public record. We’re not just dealing with body-camera footage here.”

The committee approved the bill in an 8-6 vote. It heads to the House floor for debate.

Voting in favor of the bill were Republicans John Stefanski, Daryl Deshotel, Les Farnum, Valarie Hodges, Dodie Horton, Polly Thomas, and Democrats Rodney Lyons and Candace Newell.

Voting to defer the bill were Republicans Foy Gadberry, Barry Ivey, Tanner Magee, and Democrats Royce Duplessis, Sam Jenkins and Jeremy LaCombe.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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