The staff of Gov. Ned Lamont’s office has been ordered to attend mandatory training sessions on the state’s Freedom of Information Act, after they failed to release emails, text messages and other records related to the coronavirus pandemic for more than two years.
It’s unclear if any other governor in Connecticut history has had their executive staff lectured about their duties under the state’s open records law, which was enacted in 1975 to increase transparency in state and local government.
But Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission which issued the order, said she cannot remember the governor’s office ever being subject to such an order before.
The commission voted to require the training for the governor’s office after finding that Lamont’s staff violated the open records law by repeatedly stalling a request that was filed by the Associated Press in the early months of the pandemic.
Susan Haigh, a political reporter with the Associated Press, first filed a FOI 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 pandemic lockdowns.
The news organization requested the information as part of a national story that was meant to reveal how state leaders across the country were being influenced by individuals and interest groups as they made plans to lift some of their public health restrictions.
Lamont, according to the AP, was one of three governors throughout the country that did not respond to similar requests that were sent by the news organization.
Anthony Anthony, a spokesman for Lamont, said this week that the delay in providing the records was due to the pandemic.
“During the height of the pandemic our office saw an increase in requests for information, which was exacerbated by the responsibilities of staff to respond to the pandemic itself, in addition to staff shortages,” he said.
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 a legal proceeding to force Lamont to turn over the records it asked for.
According to the commission order, Haigh sent repeated reminders to Lamont’s office over the past two years, asking the Democratic governor and his staff to release the records as state law required.
The governor’s office eventually 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 of the information was forthcoming.
The governor’s office, according to the order, explained at that time that there were thousands of other emails and documents that were relevant to the request, but had yet to be handed over.
In the months that followed, Haigh continued to question the governor’s office about why the remaining records were taking so long to release. And she pointed out that the governor’s staff had not shared any of the text messages that she asked to review as part of her request.
As a result, Haigh filed an appeal with the FOI Commission in April 2021.
The governor’s attorneys continued to claim that they were processing the request even after the appeal was filed. In August 2021, they reassured Haigh that they would “have more docs for you soon.”
Yet it wasn’t until a hearing in front of the FOI Commission was scheduled in June 2022 that the governor’s office actually produced an additional 4,286 pages of records and sent them to the AP.
During the hearing, the AP emphasized that no news organization or member of the public should have to wait two years to have their request fulfilled.
In response, the governor’s office admitted that they failed to provide the records in a reasonable timeframe.
The governor’s staff said that their failure to “promptly” turn over the records was the result of understaffing and the demands of the pandemic, which presented “overwhelming and numerous critical daily issues.”
And they told the commission that the governor’s office has since “revamped and streamlined” its process for responding to FOI requests.
That overhaul included the hiring of additional staff, identifying a point person for each request and purchasing new software that will allow them to search and share records more easily.
They also assured the commissioners that the governor and his team “understand the importance of the open records law and take their responsibility under that law seriously.”
Even so, the commission decided that the governor’s office would benefit from a refresher. The governor’s staff is required to schedule their lessons within the next three months.
Meanwhile, there are three other pending cases filed against the governor’s office that are winding their way through the FOI Commission, including one that was filed by the New London Day in 2020.
That one could also be decided in the near future.