Governor Lamont’s office ordered to undergo training on Connecticut’s Open Records Act

Staff in Gov. Ned Lamont’s office have been ordered to attend mandatory training sessions on the state’s Freedom of Information Act, after failing to post emails, text messages and other documents related to the coronavirus pandemic for more than two years.

It’s unclear whether another governor in Connecticut history has had his executive staff talk about their duties under the state’s Open Archives Act, which was enacted in 1975 to increase transparency in the state. state and local government.

But Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission who issued the order, said she did not recall the governor’s office ever being the subject of a such order before.

The commission voted to require the formation of the governor’s office after finding that Lamont staff violated the Open Records Act by repeatedly blocking a request filed by The Associated Press in the early months of the pandemic.

Susan Haigh, political reporter for the Associated Press, first filed a freedom of information request with the governor’s office on May 21, 2020, asking the governor’s attorneys and staff to turn over any communications regarding their plans to reopen the state’s economy in the wake of the pandemic. blockages.

The news agency requested the information as part of a national story meant to reveal how heads of state across the country were influenced by individuals and interest groups as they planned to lift some of their public health restrictions.

Lamont, according to the AP, was one of three governors in the country who did not respond to similar inquiries sent by the news agency.

Anthony Anthony, a spokesperson for Lamont, said this week that the delay in providing records was due to the pandemic.

“At the height of the pandemic, our office saw an increase in requests for information, which was exacerbated by staff responsibilities to respond to the pandemic itself, in addition to staff shortages,” he said. he declares.

And he said the governor’s office continues to respond to requests for information in a timely manner — despite the fact that it took the AP more than 25 months and legal proceedings to force Lamont to turn over the requested records.

According to the commission’s order, Haigh has sent repeated reminders to Lamont’s office over the past two years, asking the Democratic governor and his staff to release the records as required by state law.

The governor’s office finally provided the AP with some of its internal communications on Jan. 9, 2021 — more than six months after the governor’s staff received the request.

But even then, not all the information was available.

The governor’s office, according to the order, explained at the time that there were thousands of other emails and documents relevant to the request, but had not yet been delivered.

In the months that followed, Haigh continued to question the governor’s office as to why the remaining records were taking so long to be released. And she pointed out that the governor’s staff did not share any of the text messages she asked to review as part of her request.

As a result, Haigh filed an appeal with the FOI Commission in April 2021.

Attorneys for the governor continued to say they were processing the request even after the appeal was filed. In August 2021, they reassured Haigh that they “would soon have more documents for you”.

Yet it wasn’t until a hearing before the FOI Commission was scheduled for June 2022 that the governor’s office actually produced an additional 4,286 pages of documents and sent them to the AP.

During the hearing, the AP stressed that no news organization or member of the public should have to wait two years for their request to be met.

In response, the governor’s office admitted that it had not provided the records in a timely manner.

The governor’s staff said their inability to turn over records “quickly” was the result of understaffing and the demands of the pandemic, which presented “overwhelming and numerous day-to-day problems.”

And they told the commission that the governor’s office has since “reorganized and streamlined” its process for responding to freedom of information requests.

This overhaul included hiring additional staff, identifying a contact person for each request, and purchasing new software that will allow them to search and share files more easily.

They also assured the commissioners that the governor and his team “understand the importance of the Open Archives Act and take their responsibility under this act seriously.”

Even so, the commission decided that the governor’s office would benefit from retraining. Governor’s staff are required to schedule their classes within the next three months.

Meanwhile, there are three other ongoing cases filed against the governor’s office that are progressing through the FOI Commission, including one that was filed by New London Day in 2020.

That one could also be decided in the near future.