A law firm has paid the Hawaii Department of Public Safety $5,300 for public records, but state officials have yet to produce a single document, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the ACLU of Hawaii.
The records pertain to wrongful death cases of two Hawaii inmates who died while in the custody of Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that has a lucrative contract to house thousands of the state’s prisoners on the mainland.
Similar allegations are included in the ACLU’s lawsuit, although if true they’re much more disturbing. The ACLU says state officials are taking orders from CCA attorneys to keep public government records secret, which is a violation of the Hawaii’s open records law. The lawsuit aims to force the state to release the records.
“Hawaii’s open records law is expansive and clear; agencies have an obligation to respond to requests for records in a thorough and timely manner,” ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Daniel Gluck said in a statement. “We have done all we can to resolve this matter outside of the courts, but when the state ignores its obligations under the law we have to step in.”
The lawsuit describes a frustrating seven month back-and-forth in which DPS and officials with the state attorney general’s office dodged questions, ignored phone calls and otherwise gave the runaround to an attorney from California-based Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, which wanted access to public documents.
DPS charged the law firm $5,327.50 for the documents, but the lawsuit says no records have been released despite many promises. The lawsuit says CCA attorneys have been advising DPS officials to withhold the documents in violation of state law.
DPS also refused to give the firm several records, citing “confidentiality limitations.” No explanation was given as to the type of records that were being withheld, the lawsuit says, leaving the law firm with no way to determine if DPS had a “valid justification” for refusing the release the information.
“This is unacceptable,” said attorney Ernest Galvan, of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld. “(Our firm) has followed the proper procedure to access these documents, we have complied with every request made of us by the (DPS), we’ve clarified our request, we’ve pre-paid fees and we’ve given them extension after extension.
“The state is obligated to produce these documents, and after waiting seven months for information that is supposed to take 10 days to produce, our patience and the patience of the families we represent is at an end,” he said.
Under the state’s public records law, a government agency has 10 days to respond to a public records request. Rules also require an agency to begin releasing documents within 20 business days after an individual pre-pays for records.
DPS Spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said Thursday that her agency would “reserve comment” until it has had a chance to review the lawsuit.
Read the lawsuit here:
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