FOI exemption collides with municipal data needs

Correction Officer Kevin Brace doesn’t know why a convicted arsonist at the prison where he works was able to get his personal information through a Freedom of Information request that can reveal his home address, but he can’t imagine it’s a good thing.

“It’s paper terrorism,” said Brace. “They can get my personal information and there is nothing I can do about it.”

Brace and other government employees in a dozen categories had thought their home addresses were protected by  a law limiting access to that information under the FOI law. But a Superior Court judge ruled last year that municipal data such as land and voting records can’t be kept secret.

Now a legislative committee is considering a bill to conform the FOI law to that ruling, an action that has town clerks and the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission on one side and the protected employees on the other.

The law passed in 1995 protected the home addresses of judges, police officers, correction employees, prosecutors and public defenders. Since then it has been expanded to include a broad range of workers, from firefighters to employees of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

Town clerks told the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee that requiring clerks to keep addresses in land records confidential would be impossibly burdensome and would throw record-keeping in turmoil.

“It is just impossible,” said Antoinette Spinelli, vice-chairman of Connecticut Town Clerks Association. “Imagine the financial chaos that would occur if land ownership information were to be deemed confidential.”

Eric Turner, counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said “security concerns cannot trump preserving the integrity of records that are required by law and history to be accurate, complete and open to public inspection.”

But Jack Doyle, a New Haven prosecutor and president of Connecticut Association of Prosecutors, says it’s obvious why addresses should remain guarded.

“Prosecutors are threatened all the time. There are people who hold grudges. Why would government be making it easier for these people to get my information?” he said.

Inmates receive hundreds of thousands of pages through FOI requests each year, said Joan Ellis, FOI administrator for the Connecticut Department of Correction.

“I cannot review every one of these pages. And I am not allowed to ask why they want this information either,” she said.

In some cases, the information is used to file spurious liens as a form of harassment. Sandra A. Sharr, director of the DOC’s Legal Affairs Unit, said the unit found eight cases last year in which inmates succeeded in placing liens against other employee’s property–including a $6 million lien on recently-retired DOC Commissioner Theresa Lantz’s home. Numerous other attempts were rejected DOC reports, including one targeting Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s home in Brookfield.

“These liens are very easy to file, but they are baseless,” Sharr said, adding that the process to get a bogus lien removed is complicated and in most cases hiring a lawyer is necessary. Liens also can impede someone from selling their home or obtaining credit.

Sharr said she is working with the Connecticut attorney general’s office to go after inmates filing fraudulent liens, but has yet to file charges against anyone.

Committee members are torn on the issue, including Rep. James F. Spallone, D-Essex, GAE committee co-chairman.

“The problem is dependable records are needed. If suddenly there are no names attached to legal documents, how do you get things done?” he said. “But correction officers do deserve to be safe too.”

For whatever reason inmates are requesting information, Sen. John A. Kissel, a Republican who has six jails in his Enfield-area district, said the addresses of correction officers and other public officials should be guarded.

“It’s a reasonable set of brakes. They do not need to have unfettered access to harass people,” he said.