Dannel P. Malloy came into office as governor two years ago saying he's committed to "open and transparent" government, but recent events have put that assertion in question.
"Transparent" and "transparency" are the words that leaders use these days to assure citizens that they'll be well informed about government operations and decision-making, and that they'll have ready access to government records.
"Making government more user-friendly, efficient and transparent" was a key goal listed by Malloy's budget chief in a report last fall, for example.
But then came last Tuesday. That's when The Courant revealed that the staffs of Malloy and top state prosecutor Kevin Kane had been working secretly for weeks with legislative leaders to draft a bill to block public disclosure of some investigative records concerning the Dec. 14 Newtown massacre. Documents to be withheld include audio tapes of 911 emergency calls, which are routinely released by police departments throughout the country.
That's not something that "a transparency governor" should support, said Jim Smith, who spent 40 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and now heads the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. Smith said it's only Malloy's latest affront to "transparency."
"He's no Ella Grasso," Smith said Thursday, referring to the governor who got the legislature to create the state Freedom of Information Commission in 1975, after the Watergate scandal. "Ella Grasso gave us the [FOI] commission and she was a true champion of the people's right to know. Dan Malloy is trying to tear apart the Freedom of Information Commission."
Smith said those are his own views, not the official stance of the council he heads. But other FOI advocates didn't disagree.
"I haven't seen any signs" that Malloy is especially "transparent," said Mitchell Pearlman, who retired in 2005 after three decades as the first director of the FOI Commission and now "reads the newspapers and follows these issues on a day-to-day basis."
Their views were echoed in newspaper editorials, which said it's wrong to pass legislation hurting the public's right to know because of one crime, however horrific. Police never release grisly crime-scene photos anyway, FOI advocates said, and when they're entered as evidence in criminal trials, news organizations don't publish them. Also, 911 tapes are essential to citizens and reporters so they can evaluate police response to emergencies, they said.
Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, defended the proposed legislation – saying its language is confined to records of the Newtown shootings, and wouldn't extend to other cases. But others said that the bill would inevitably draw demands from future victims for the same protections; the state victim advocate said it would be unfair not to extend the bill's provisions to the little-noticed victims of urban crime.
Ojakian said the governor is responding, through the bill, to the pleas of Newtown families for privacy and the ability to grieve in peace. "We would not be having this conversation if 20 children weren't murdered in a school," Ojakian told a reporter.
Malloy addressed the criticism Friday when he met with reporters at a public appearance in East Hartford. Noting that the bill doesn't go beyond Newtown and Dec. 14, he said: "There's been a lot of wacky coverage in the blog world … I'm going to stand with the parents. I want to protect them. I don't think these pictures should be released, and I'm with them."
Does Malloy Believe?
But others questioned how strongly Malloy believes in the transparency he's espoused.
Smith, the veteran journalist who heads the council on FOI, pointed at other actions – including the governor's consolidation in 2011 of the FOI commission with other previously autonomous government watchdog agencies that oversee elections and officials' ethics.
Smith also cited the governor's attempt this year to put the independent legal and investigative staffs of the watchdog agencies under supervision of a gubernatorial appointee. Malloy's move apparently has been foiled by legislators – who, despite their own lackluster "transparency" credentials, now look like the saviors of FOI by comparison.
And by week's end the criticism rose to a political level, when state Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola on Friday called Malloy a "foe of FOI."
Labriola suggested that the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, which had its awards dinner Thursday night, name Malloy as the "first recipient of the "Foe of the FOI" award" in recognition of his "unrelenting and systematic attack on Connecticut's freedom of information laws."
"He is always talking about his commitment to transparency," Labriola said, "but his record shows that he has actually done more to undermine our [FOI] laws than any state official in recent memory."
Labriola hammered Malloy for having his staff work secretly on the Newtown bill – and for the actions Smith mentioned with regard to the FOI Commission and other watchdog agencies. He added that Malloy has been grudging and slow about releasing information on economic development deals.
Andrew Doba, Malloy's director of communications, had only this to say about Labriola's comments: "This is a lame political stunt."
Doba already had to respond to "transparency" questions in connection with a May 12 Government Watch column about bills pending in the legislature this year that would further erode the public's right to know.
Doba said at the time that Malloy's moves with the watchdog agencies were intended to improve efficiency, not control or hinder them. And, in general, he said: "I would disagree that there's been an effort by the administration to reduce transparency. On economic development deals, there's a certain amount of confidentiality that's needed to move a deal forward. But by and large, we've made every effort to make this administration transparent in all of its endeavors."
That May 12 column also mentioned a bill proposed by state Comptroller Kevin Lembo that would buck the trend of FOI erosion, however – and Labriola noted in Friday's statement that Malloy's administration has resisted it.
Lembo's House Bill 6566, "An Act Concerning Transparency In Economic Assistance Programs," would create a searchable, online database for the public to research economic-development benefits that the state grants to businesses – such as tax breaks, loans and grants.
The bill has been opposed by the business community, and Malloy administration officials have testified against it, questioning its cost. It's now subject to negotiations that Ojakian said he hopes will "strike a balance between our economic development needs and opportunities, and … transparency."
Lembo has said in the past that he would rather "kill my own bill" than water it down too much in negotiations to pass it.
At least a couple of states – Missouri and Oklahoma — have established searchable databases on government websites, where the public can enter a company's name and find out what tax breaks or other aid it receives. Missouri and Oklahoma are generally rated by trade publications as more business-friendly than Connecticut.
Smith announced Monday that the council on FOI would give Lembo its 2013 Bice Clemow Award, which goes annually "to a non-journalist who has worked for open government." He added: "As you know Lembo's transparency legislation is facing stiff opposition from the Malloy administration and others."
Meanwhile, at week's end, Malloy's office still hadn't produced any emails about the secret Newtown bill that it received or sent. The Courant requested them Tuesday.
And, with regard to the audio tapes of 911 emergency calls: The most recent, close analogy to the Newtown massacre in Connecticut was the August 2010 killing of eight people at Hartford Distributors in Manchester. The 911 tapes for that were released within several days. On one of them, gunman Omar Thornton said he committed the mass murders because he'd been subjected to racism.
Investigation determined his statements were unfounded. But the tapes were released, and the public understood the incident better.
Courant staff writer Mara Lee contributed to this report.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter at @jonlender.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun