Watergate scandal helped pry open government records


Your right to know: Records denied, she went to court.

When Kathleen O'Connor sued the state Department of Social and Health Services in 1999, the Bellevue mother of three knew she was in for a battle.

Last June, she ended up as a champion for public access to government records when the state Supreme Court sided with her in a court challenge.

In O'Connor's attempt to prove her 15-year-old son had been assaulted by a DSHS employee, her lawyer, Denis Stearns, tried to force his way into agency books through public-records requests. He wanted to learn about other cases at DSHS facilities and agency procedures to prevent abuse.

But the DSHS and Washington's attorney general denied his request, saying O'Connor must use court discovery rules to gain that information.

"I was just flabbergasted," said Stearns, who routinely uses public records to investigate lawsuits. He wanted to take a chance at a state Supreme Court review.

"I went to Kathleen and said, 'This is really wrong,' " Stearns said. "A lot of clients would have said, 'This has nothing to do with my case.' She totally gave it the green light."

O'Connor quickly landed a raft of disparate supporters who rely on public records to monitor government actions: Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, the Washington State Farm Bureau, the Washington Association of Realtors, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Building Industry Association of Washington filed a joint document with the Supreme Court on her behalf.

Their goal: to prevent the state from hiding behind time-consuming and expensive court procedures that "delay and frustrate the search for truth ... to the point that justice is compromised."

Suing a public agency, the petitioners argued, does not mean residents give up their rights to obtain records like every other citizen.

Stearns' records crusade relied on the state Open Records Act, which was approved by voters in 1972. That law, despite more than 50 exemptions, keeps agencies' records open to the public.

Washington's law was part of a national push to redefine the public's right to know, an outgrowth of the Freedom of Information Act passed by Congress in 1966 and the Watergate investigation in the 1970s.

"It was a time when people had a strong interest in seeing what government was doing," said Rebecca Daugherty, head of the Freedom of Information Service Center in Arlington, Va. Without such laws, many agencies simply would clam up, Daugherty said.

"It's always easier to operate without anybody seeing what you do," she said. "No one is going to choose to have anyone looking at their work."

Few understand that better than the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a government-watchdog group in Olympia, which relies on the Open Records Act to probe agency spending and actions.

Most recently, the group initiated an investigation into the use of union dues paid by schoolteachers that led to a guilty verdict against the Washington Education Association in Thurston County Superior Court.

The state's public-records law "certainly has allowed us to get information from individual school districts to see how the union is complying with the law," said Marsha Richards, communications director for the 10-year-old foundation.

By most accounts, Washington's law provides reasonably strong and clearly worded public access. Most of the time, according to those who use the law regularly, problems are the result of agency interpretations.

Washington law gives residents the option of challenging a state-agency denial by turning to the Attorney General's Office for an impartial review. New York and Connecticut offer a similar service for local-agency denials; that is not available in Washington.

Otherwise, challenges to agency records requests end up in court, forcing many to end their quest for lack of money. Because newspapers have a record of being willing to sue for records, journalists often get preferential treatment, said Chip Holcomb, senior counsel for the Attorney General's Office.

"When the Tacoma News-Tribune or the Tri-City Herald or The Seattle Times asks for an item, the agency sees it differently than if it was just a citizen," he said.

While the core of Washington's public-records law has been consistent since its inception, challenges and changes are common. Politicians consider laws during virtually every legislative session that would exempt more information from public view. For instance, American ginseng dealers were able to persuade the Legislature to make certain information about their sales and production exempt from public review.

"There is an ongoing process of tweakage going on in the Legislature," Holcomb said.

The series, including tips on requesting public documents, can be found at www.openwashington.com.