Friday, May 13, 2011

House Committee passes bill expanding attorney-client privilege for government, restricting public's right to know

Without questions or discussion, a House Conference Committee on Thursday passed HB 1559, which limits the public's right to know by expanding the attorney-client privilege for public bodies.

The bill would give state and local governments more power to keep documents confidential because it wipes out statutory language limiting the circumstances under which public bodies can declare records protected by attorney-client privilege.

If a Senate Conference Committee approves the bill, it could be heard on the floors of the Senate and House early next week.

Representatives voting YES to allow the bill out of conference on Thursday were Sue Tibbs (R-Tulsa); Fred Jordan (R-Jenks); Steve Martin (R-Bartlesville); Lewis Moore (R-Arcadia); Dustin Roberts (R-Durant); Dan Sullivan (R-Tulsa); Paul Wesselhoft (R-Moore); and Corey Williams (D-Stillwater).

Refusing to sign the bill out of committee were Republican Mark McCullough of Sapulpa and Democrats Ben Sherrer of Choteau and Richard Morrissette of Oklahoma City.

Absent were Colby Schwartz (R-Yukon) and Paul Roan (D-Tishomingo).

The bill seeks to amend a state statute that permits the attorney-client privilege for government records only when "the communication concerns a pending investigation, claim or action and the court determines that disclosure will seriously impair the ability of the public officer or agency to process the claim or conduct a pending investigation, litigation or proceeding in the public interest." (OKLA. STATE. tit. 12, § 2502 (D)(7))

The bill would remove that language, allowing the attorney-client privilege to be overcome only if the documents were sought by a multi-county grand jury.

The Oklahoma Municipal League is lobbying for the bill. But the Oklahoma Press Association opposes "removing the language because it takes the court review out of the process if there is suspected abuse or corruption between public officials and their attorney," said Mark Thomas, OPA executive vice president.

"As citizens, we MUST have some confidence that corruption is not happening. Having the ability to ask the court to review the attorney-client communications should remain in the law," said Thomas.

"Why does the Tulsa Public School attorney want this changed so badly? Why does the City of Jenks attorney want this changed? Why does the Oklahoma Municipal League want to change this law?" asked Thomas.

The bill goes to a Senate Conference Committee for a vote.

The Senate Conference Committee members will be Republicans Dan Newberry of Tulsa, who sponsored the bill in the Senate; Brian Crain of Tulsa, Jonathan Nichols of Norman and Anthony Sykes of Moore.

Democrats on the committee are Charlie Laster of Shawnee and John Sparks of Norman.

The OPA is urging Oklahomans to ask their state senators and representatives to vote against the bill.

The Press Association should be able to count on 16 legislators who have signed FOI Oklahoma's Open Government Pledge.

House members who signed the pledge are:
In the Senate, Josh Breechen, R-Coalgate, Roger Ballenger, D-Okmulgee, and minority leader Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, signed the pledge.

Gov. Mary Fallin also signed the pledge as a candidate, so the OPA should be able count on her to veto the bill if it arrives on her desk.

Each of these politicians promised "to support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power."

If you contact one of these elected officials, please remind them of that pledge.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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