The Delaware Attorney General’s office released a Freedom of Information Act legal opinion today giving Delaware Governor Carney the right to use executive privilege for a council designed to improve family services in Delaware. In other words, they are allowed to hold non-public meetings and invite whomever they choose with no one the wiser. The Attorney General’s office agreed with Carney’s office because of a very bad “separation of powers” clause in state law. Continue reading “Governor Carney’s Office Cites “Executive Privilege” With Family Services Cabinet Council FOIA Complaint”
A pungent stench is coming from Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn’s office when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act. When the Delaware Attorney General’s office gets the facts wrong on a response to a FOIA complaint, the only way for a Delaware citizen to correct those errors is to file with the Superior Court. Which costs money and fills the state coffers. Can someone please remind me why I pay taxes for a state where our Governor feels “sunshine is the best disinfectant“?
The response I received two days ago from Matt Denn’s office stems from my FOIA complaint and the Delaware Dept. of Justice’s response to that FOIA which came out on October 28th. The Delaware Pathways Steering Committee did not publish their first meeting anywhere and I filed a complaint. Considering the DOJ is still working on a FOIA complaint I submitted last March, it seems there was a rush to put the matter concerning Governor Markell’s Executive Ordered Delaware Pathways Steering Committee to bed.
When I emailed Denn’s office to reevaluate the FOIA response the same day, I didn’t hear back from anyone. On Tuesday I sent an email to Matt Denn asking for any type of response to my October 28th request. On Wednesday, I received the below email from Kim Siegel, Denn’s FOIA Coordinator. I did edit out part of the email which covered a separate matter I am working on with Denn’s office.
From: OpenGovernment (DOJ) <OpenGovernment@state.de.us>
To: Kevin Ohlandt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 4:04 PM
Subject: October 28, 2016 determination
Dear Mr. Ohlandt,
Attorney General Denn has asked me to respond to the issues raised in your December 6, 2016 e-mail. Your e-mail makes reference to an October 28, 2016 determination by the Chief Deputy Attorney General in response to a FOIA petition regarding the Pathways to Prosperity Steering Committee. Under the Delaware Code, a petitioner who is dissatisfied with the outcome of a FOIA determination by the Chief Deputy Attorney General may “appeal the matter on the record to Superior Court.” Therefore, if you wish to appeal the determination, that is the mechanism under Delaware law by which to do so.
Kim Siegel, MPA
Legislative Affairs Manager
Delaware Department of Justice
So if I am understanding this correctly, when a citizen alleges a public body has violated FOIA, which is the law, the public body can skirt around the law and give false information. But when the citizen calls them out on it, through a request for appeal, suddenly the DOJ decides the law is important. The mechanism for appeal is not fair at all to a citizen looking for transparency.
What is the point of a Freedom of Information Act request if the agency looking at it refuses to look at all the facts from both sides? This is typically how it is done- a party files a complaint with the facts as they know them, the DOJ sends the complaint to the party that had the FOIA complaint filed against them, the defending party sends a response, the DOJ sends the defendant agency’s response to the accuser, and then the DOJ rules on the complaint. I have had FOIA complaints in the past that dragged out because the DOJ wanted more information. Apparently, that was not the case with this complaint. The DOJ Chief Deputy Attorney General came out with this FOIA response in record time without any chance of obtaining more information on the matter.
So if I want to take this matter further, I have to file with the Superior Court. How much would that cost? According to the Superior Court website, it wouldn’t be cheap!
- $10.00 Court Security Assessment Fee
- $190.00 for the first 40 filings of an action
- $150.00 for request for a trial date which is non-refundable
- Fees do not include advertising costs which shall be billed directly to the filing party.
So right off the bat, filing an appeal against a FOIA response from Matt Denn’s office would cost me $350.00 which I would not get back no matter how the Superior Court ruled. I could do this without an attorney and most likely get chewed alive by the DOJ’s attorney. So I would probably have to get my attorney. That would cost well over $1,000.00. And that number would climb once it went to trial.
The transparency racket in Delaware is almost criminal. In essence, it is a money-maker for the state in many situations. I don’t have that kind of money. Most Delawareans don’t. Which is exactly what they count on. When you file a FOIA complaint against a state agency asking for emails, the state agency knows they can say they don’t have the emails. At that point, the state agency responds they don’t have them but the requesting party can file a $250.00 fee with the Department of Technology and Information to do a search for those emails. Most people don’t have $250.00 they can just fork over like that. And then the fees associated with reviewing the information. Depending on what the party is looking for, this can climb into the four figure amount quickly.
Here is the bottom line: people don’t file FOIA requests if they think everything is hunky-dory. They believe something illegal happened or is about to happen. While FOIA responses from the DOJ don’t always rule there was a FOIA violation in a complaint, at times their reasoning is subjective. The DOJ is not going to sue another state agency. So if a citizen wants to take that extra step, they have to pay. Even if the DOJ’s office gets information wrong, they appear to be above the law unless you take them to court.
It is the Department of Justice, not the Department of Covering Other State Agencies Asses. But transparency is a fickle beast depending on who you want it from. I guess us taxpaying citizens are not meant to know the truth about matters in Delaware. It is bad enough Governor Markell can evade transparency by including a member of the General Assembly on an email (no member of the General Assembly is subject to FOIA), but it appears FOIA in and of itself is not freedom of information. It should be called DOIA, the Denial of Information Act.
Last year, Delaware State Rep. Sean Lynn sponsored legislation which would have lifted the FOIA ban on the General Assembly. It went nowhere. Far too many of our legislators hide behind that privilege and are able to operate with no transparency. And our state leaders take full advantage of this when possible. The way Delaware code is set up it makes it impossible for a citizen to find out matters in the public interest. When a citizen files a FOIA complaint with the DOJ, that office makes it impossible for a citizen to appeal that decision unless they pay money to the state. Even if that citizen produces contradictory information which could easily give the matter further merit.
Until our legislators stop playing games with the truth, nothing will change with FOIA in Delaware. We are just the pawns too many of them suck up to when they need our vote. Once again, I say this with the caveat that there are some legislators who are good people. But it rests with the leadership of the House and Senate as well as the committee Chairs. If you have nothing to hide, there shouldn’t be a problem with making FOIA easier. But it is more clear that fraud and cover-up exists at the highest levels of Delaware. And when an education-sucking vampire like the Rodel Foundation gets thrown into the mix, all bets are off.
This is the email I sent to Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn when I submitted a request for appeal on the FOIA response from October 28th:
From: Kevin Ohlandt <email@example.com>
To: Denn Matthew (DOJ) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: Siegel Kim (DOJ) <email@example.com>; Gibbs Danielle (DOJ) <firstname.lastname@example.org>; OpenGovernment <email@example.com>
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2016 4:47 PM
Subject: This FOIA Complaint legal opinion issued today is just wrong.
I am openly and publicly asking you to respond to this opinion issued from your office today acknowledging ALL the facts I presented in this article as well as the questions posed at the end of the article:
On October 7th, the Delaware Pathways Steering Committee held their first meeting with no public notice or an agenda put up 7 days prior to the meeting as required by Delaware state code. In August, Delaware Governor Jack Markell issued an Executive Order creating this public body. The only reason I found out about it was due to tweets from the Rodel Foundation and Mark Brainard of Delaware Tech. I promptly filed a FOIA complaint on October 11th. Seventeen days later, the Delaware Attorney General’s office has already responded to the FOIA complaint. To put this in perspective, I filed a FOIA complaint last March which just had the Attorney General opinion issued last week. BI submitted another FOIA complaint around that same time period and there has been no official opinion released from the Attorney General’s office. But Alison May from the Delaware DOE did respond in record time with their side of the complaint, but she has before. So why was this FOIA complaint rushed?
Below is my original request, the acknowledgment from the Attorney General’s office, the Delaware DOE’s response to the complaint, and the opinion on the FOIA complaint issued today. As well, I am including an email that was still in draft form disputing the facts provided by Alison May in the Delaware DOE’s response. I truly believed I had more time given the turnaround time on FOIA complaints coming out of the AG’s office but this one had a lightning fast response. Given the below findings and other inconsistencies with their opinion, I believe this was a very rushed job they wanted to put to bed fast. But that opens up a whole other can of worms…
Original FOIA Complaint, issued 10/11/16
From: Kevin Ohlandt [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, October 11, 2016 9:23 AM
To: OpenGovernment (DOJ) <OpenGovernment@state.de.us>
Subject: FOIA Complaint
I am submitting a FOIA complaint in regards to the newly created Pathways Steering Committee. This body came out of Executive Order #61, issued by Governor Markell on Thursday, August 11th, 2016. While there was nothing anywhere indicating they were holding a meeting, tweets appeared on October 7th suggesting the body met as a group. This is a state group, created by an elected official. Yet there was no posting of the meeting or an agenda. Attached are screen shots of the tweets posted by Mark Brainard and the Rodel Foundation of Delaware.
I take this violation very seriously. For a group that is supposed to be all about students, I find it ironic they would operate in secrecy with no ability for the public to attend. This does not translate into anything close to an open government.
9 Crosley Court
Dover, DE 19904
On October 12th, the Delaware Attorney General acknowledged receipt of my FOIA Complaint
October 11, 2016 Correspondence Regarding the Pathways to Prosperity Steering Committee
Mr. Kevin Ohlandt
9 Crosley Ct.
Dover, DE 19904
RE: October 11, 2016 Correspondence Regarding the Pathways to Prosperity Steering Committee
Dear Mr. Ohlandt:
This will acknowledge receipt of your correspondence regarding the Pathways to Prosperity Steering Committee (the “Committee”), received on October 11, 2016, alleging certain violations of the open meetings provisions of Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act, 29 Del. C. §§ 10001-10007 (“FOIA”). We treat your correspondence as a petition for determination pursuant to 29 Del. C. § 10005. We are forwarding your correspondence to the Committee’s counsel, asking that they respond to your allegations by October 19, 2016. When we have received the Committee’s response, we will determine whether additional information from either party is required and decide what further action, if any, is appropriate.
Very truly yours,
/s/ Kim Siegel
cc: Danielle Gibbs, Chief Deputy Attorney General (via email)
Michelle E. Whalen, Deputy Attorney General (via email)
Meredith S. Tweedie, Esq. (via email)
The Delaware Department of Education’s Response to the FOIA Complaint, 10/19/16
Issued today was the official opinion from the Delaware Attorney General’s office:
16-IB23 10/28/2016 FOIA Opinion Letter to Mr. Kevin Ohlandt re: FOIA Complaint Concerning the Pathways to Prosperity Steering Committee
This is the draft I was working on to send to the Attorney General’s office that I believed I had more time to formulate:
October 26th, 2016
Good afternoon Ms. Siegel,
In reviewing Alison May from the Dept. of Education’s response to my FOIA complaint from October 11th, in the letter provided from her on October 19th, she states the following:
…and the draft minutes of the October 7th meeting (attached hereto, along with the other documents discussed at the meeting) will be posted online by the end of this week.
The DOE provided no explanation as to why the notices and agendas were posted less than seven days in advance of the meetings, and it concedes that the postings did not comply with FOIA. The DOE also explained that no action was taken by the AFWG at either meeting. The DOE apologized and said it would “endeavor to determine the agenda of any future AFWG meetings as of the time of any required public notice of them, and include the agenda in any such required notice.
By letters dated July 31 and August 1, 2012, the Governor extended invitations to a number of individuals to participate in the Working Group as representatives of several public bodies, including the General Assembly, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, and various private stakeholder groups (the “Invitations”).
On June 10, 2013, you filed this appeal seeking access to the Working Group’s meeting minutes. We received a response on July 11, 2013. The response indicates that the Working Group did not consider itself to be a “public body” within the meaning of section 10002(h), due primarily to the informal nature of the Working Group.
FOIA, with certain exceptions not relevant here, establishes a public right to inspect all “public records” and requires that all meetings of public bodies be open to the public.4 FOIA’s “open meeting” provisions call for advance notice to the public of all public meetings and require public bodies to prepare and make available to the public agendas for and minutes of their public meetings.5
Section 10002(h) provides substantial guidance as to the types of entities and bodies encompassed within the phrase “body of the State.” That concept, as used in FOIA, includes, among other things, any “group . . . appointed by any . . . public official of the State” that was “impliedly or specifically charged” with making recommendations.9 The Working Group was a “body of the State” within the meaning of section 10002(h).
But the key part from this opinion rests on the following and is key to my own FOIA complaint:
First, this Office consistently has rejected arguments that FOIA’s applicability hinges on adherence to formalities in the creation of a public body, lest FOIA’s goals of openness and government accountability be subverted.14
This was where my draft ended which I fully intended on doing further research on in the next week.
Now here are my issues with the Attorney General’s response to the FOIA complaint. First off, in Alison May’s response from the Delaware DOE, she said it was under the Delaware Dept. of Education’s control to issue the agenda. However, in the link on the FOIA complaint, we see an Agenda created on 10/17/16, ten days after the meeting, and it was issued from Governor Markell’s office, not the Delaware DOE. Furthermore, if this was indeed a public body, why was there no agenda item for public comment? As well, the minutes submitted by Alison May in the DOE’s response to the FOIA complaint are actually different than those that appear on the Googledrive website.
In the original minutes, submitted with Alison May in the Delaware DOE response to my FOIA complaint, it states the following:
Dr. Brainard charged Mr. Rhine to conduct outreach to Steering Committee members to review the draft strategic plan and collect additional input;
Dr. Brainard charged Mr. Rhine to develop a transition report for partnering state agencies to be used as a transitional tool in planning for the next executive administration;
Mr. Rhine will conduct outreach to Steering Committee members to review the draft strategic plan and collect additional input;Mr. Rhine will develop a transition report for partnering state agencies to be used as a transitional tool in planning for the next executive administration;
Moreover, as you note in your Petition, certain members of the Committee published photographs of its meeting on social media either, contemporaneously or immediately following the meeting. We find this to be inconsistent with an intentional failure to adhere to FOIA’s open meetings provisions. We see no evidence of an intent – by the Governor or any other Committee member – to circumvent FOIA. Nor do we see an ongoing pattern of FOIA non-compliance which might warrant extreme remedy.
Here is a newsflash for the Attorney General’s office: having a non-profit foundation and a member of the committee post tweets about a non-transparent meeting of a public body issued by a Governor’s Executive Order, does not point either way towards an intentional failure to adhere to FOIA’s open meetings provisions. What it shows is someone tweeting. So to give this extra bearing in a legal opinion about something that was already established to be under the Delaware Dept. of Education’s responsibility is misleading at best.