Monday, September 19, 2011

DHS took six months to respond to Tulsa World request for records

The state Department of Human Services took half a year to provide the Tulsa World with information about lawsuit settlements related to child abuse and neglect, the newspaper noted today.

The newspaper made three requests March 8, each related to records of legal costs and lawsuit settlements.

DHS did not provide information on two requests until the newspaper told officials it was preparing to publish a story about the department's failure to comply with the records request.

The records revealed that DHS has settled 24 lawsuits related to child abuse and neglect since 2005 for more than $3.4 million - $1.4 million from the agency and $2 million from insurance, the Tulsa World reported Sunday.

The amount paid in a 2010 case is being kept secret from the public because the settlement was sealed by a district judge.

DHS officials told the Tulsa World that the records request took six months to answer because legal staff had to search past files in storage to cull the information requested and because cases are not separated by category such as child welfare.

DHS officials apparently didn't already know how much the department has spent on outside legal counsel and has paid to settle child abuse-related lawsuits since 2005.

Meaning the department apparently has no tracking system for legal settlements and attorney costs.

That raises doubts about how efficiently and how effectively DHS officials are handling the public's money.

Moreover, this kind of scattered record-keeping is a breeding ground for incompetence and corruption.

Also questionable is whether DHS officials complied with the state Open Records Act by taking six months to respond to the records request.

Under the Open Records Act, "A public body must provide prompt, reasonable access to its records...." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.5(5))

A 1999 attorney general opinion stated succinctly that "prompt, reasonable access" generally means "only the time required to locate and compile" the public records. (1999 OK AG 58, ¶ 15)

DHS officials told the Tulsa World that much of the legal staff's resources and time were being used to defend the class-action lawsuit. So why were records made available only after the newspaper threatened to publicize how long DHS was taking to provide the information?

Oklahoma public agencies and officials have a "duty" to provide public records to the public. Then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson said:
The purpose of the Act is 'to ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.' To fulfill this purpose the Act imposes a duty on a public body to 'provide prompt, reasonable access to its records' and make a person available to release records during the public body's regular business hours. (2005 OK AG 3, ¶ 4)

That purpose is defeated if government officials can deny access by delaying access.

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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