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Gray presses ahead with open records changes

Reprinted from The Examiner

The District’s top lawyer on Wednesday said Mayor Vincent Gray’s push to make public document disclosure laws more favorable to the government had nothing to do with the political scandals that have rocked the city for his 18-month tenure.

“Many on the council and staff share our concerns [about violating an employee’s privacy],” D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said in his testimony before a council committee on a bill that would modify the city’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. “This has absolutely nothing to do with the allegations that have been involved with the council members and the campaigns [of Gray and former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown].”

The latest development in the federal investigation into city corruption occurred the day before Nathan’s testimony, when a key aide to Gray’s 2010 campaign pleaded guilty to a conspiracy and other charges related to an illegal shadow campaign fund for the then-council chairman’s mayoral bid. Her guilty plea is the third related to the Gray campaign and the seventh so far this year in the federal probe. Those pleas include Brown and former Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas Jr.

Nathan noted that Brown’s and Thomas’ guilty pleas were related to “personal financial records and did not have anything to do with government records.”

“There’s no connection — it’s complete illogic,” he said.

But Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Muriel Bowser interjected, referring to the mayor.

“Respectfully, today’s headline had nothing to do with Harry Thomas Jr. and Kwame Brown,” she said.

The bill would amend the FOIA to be in line with federal law. This includes giving city agencies five more business days from their current 15 to respond to a request and exempts more types of records — such as employees’ personal records — from disclosure.

Nathan said the city’s FOIA officers are often tied up with overly burdensome requests that ask for too much given the time frame. For example, the police union recently requested every email over a four-year period from the police chief and other officials that mentioned the union and its leadership. Nathan said answering that request required seven police department staff who reviewed nearly 18,000 pages of emails and attachments.

However, Nathan’s office and the police department have been caught trying to circumvent the city’s disclosure laws. Earlier this year, a judge found both agencies had submitted “false affidavits … to a judicial officer in an effort to defeat their FOIA obligations,” said Carl Messineo, legal director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which had brought the FOIA suit against the city.