Release of low-digit plate info violated privacy laws

The public disclosure of a list of low-digit license plates issued to Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s family, friends and staff shortly before she left office violated privacy laws, the new governor’s legal counsel said Friday night. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s less-than-contrite reaction Saturday: He’ll give a new plate to any recipient who feels aggrieved.

“If a mistake was made, we will gladly refund the money to any individual requesting it and promptly issue a new license plate,” Malloy said in an emailed statement.

Republican State Chairman Chris Healy said Malloy needs to explain why the information was released on the VIP plates issued by the Rell administration to Rell, her family and prominent politicians, including Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, and the GOP’s nominee for U.S. Senate last year, Linda McMahon.

“The governor has to explain what happened and what was the purpose of it. What was the purpose of handing any reporter selective identities of people who own certain license plates who happen to be Republicans?” Healy asked. “Was it the purpose to be spiteful?”

Andrew J. McDonald, the legal counsel to Malloy, said the purpose was to respond to a media request. The administration’s top communication official, Roy Occhiogrosso, provided the list without realizing it was illegal to disclose the owners of the low-digit plates, he said.

“When the request came in, the response was based on an effort to be as open and transparent as possible,” McDonald said.

Occhiogrosso said that former state Sen. Kevin Rennie, a blogger and Hartford Courant columnist, requested the information after hearing that Rell had issued the sought-after plates.

“It never dawned on me I was being asked a question I wasn’t supposed to answer,” Occhiogrosso said.

The illegality of the release of the information was first reported by the Associated Press. The information is considered personal, though not “highly restricted,” the designation given to a motorist’s photograph, Social Security number or medical or disability information.

Occhiogrosso said he passed on Rennie’s request to Timothy Bannon, the governor’s chief of staff, who relayed it to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The information came back through Bannon, and Occhiogrosso gave it to Rennie, who posted an item Thursday.

“I didn’t even look at it. I forwarded the email,” Occhiogrosso said. “If I did something wrong, I did it honestly.”

License plate information and driver’s license data used to be public, but the laws were changed in the 1990s.

“Unfortunately, in providing that response, nobody checked with the legal office to confirm the appropriateness of the disclosure,” McDonald said.

Recipients of the low-digit plates included Rell and her former chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody. McKinney, another recipient, questioned earlier Friday if the identity of recipients of the license plates was public information. He could not be reached for comment today.

Healy said the Malloy administration should be held accountable for the privacy breach. Asked if he believed that Occhiogrosso or Bannon should be fired, he replied, “No.”

“I just think more explanation is needed,” Healy said.

Healy questioned why Occhiogrosso or Bannon didn’t direct Rennie to make a FOI request to the Department of Motor Vehicles, given what he called the frivolous nature of Rennie’s inquiry. It was not worth even a few minutes of senior staff time, given the administration’s challenges, Healy said.

“This is high school,” he said.

The Rell administration did nothing illegal in issuing the low-digit plates to a favored few. It has been the practice of every administration going back to the 1960s, and probably beyond, to reserve two-, three-, and four-digit plates for friends, supporters and VIPs.

“That is a perk of winning,” Healy said.

At a press conference Friday, Malloy also suggested that Rell’s actions were not a big deal, though he claimed not to understand the clamor at the end of every administration for hard-to-get license numbers.

“Honestly, I don’t get it. I just don’t get it,” Malloy said of the appeal that the license plates have held for the political classes, something he says has always been part of “the Hartford culture.”