Willis-Knighton Health System (WKHS) in Shreveport, Louisiana, has filed suit against the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development (LA DOTD) to obtain key e-mails the agency has twice refused to produce related to the extension of LA Hwy. 3132 in Shreveport. The requested documents are communications about the highway project between key officials at LA DOTD and Governor Bobby Jindal and/or members of his staff.
The suit was filed yesterday in the state capital’s 19th Judicial District Court, Parish of East Baton Rouge.
The lawsuit, filed in the name of WKHS Chief Financial Officer, Robert Huie, names as defendants LA DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas, individually and as head of LA DOTD, the state highway department itself, and its agent for legal service. Such a “Writ of Mandamus” is the legal remedy when a state or local government official fails to perform an action which the law recognizes as a “duty beyond the official’s discretion.”
The Public Records Request for the subject e-mails and other communications was made by WKHS on June 28, 2012, with an earlier such request made by its Finish 3132 Coalition. With each request, all but a few of the 100+ documents produced had been rendered virtually unreadable by redactions apparently performed by LA DOTD legal staff. As stated in the WKHS lawsuit:
“Defendants have willfully and knowingly failed or refused to comply with their constitutional and statutory duties to provide Plaintiff full and complete copies of the public records sought without redaction, alteration or modification and have substantially defeated Plaintiff’s constitutional and statutory right to access public records.“
The lawsuit is available for reading on the Finish 3132 Coalition website, shown here.
On behalf of the Coalition, I wrote in detail about the withholding of these public records by LA DOTD earlier this year, as shown here.
The use by Louisiana state officials of the “deliberative process” anti-transparency tool of Governor Jindal continues to expand, and a recent editorial by the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate is an example of the resulting reaction from the news media and government watchdogs. Earlier this month, Associated Press Capital Bureau reporter Melinda Deslatte highlighted the use of the ruse by State Education Superintendent John White in a story which went out on AP’s “national wire”, as shown here.
The key legal argument against the use of Jindal’s “deliberative process” claim in this instance is explained as follows in the WKHS suit:
“La. R.S. 44:5, the so-called “deliberative process” exemption, applies only to the Governor and the Governor’s staff, and then only to records which have been or are being used “in the usual course of the duties and business” of the Governor’s office. It does not apply to DOTD or to any public records which are in the possession, custody, or control of DOTD or any of its officers, agents, representatives, or employees, and does not except or exempt any public records which are in the possession, custody, or control of DOTD or any of its officers, agents, representatives, or employees from the operation or requirements of Article 12, § 3 of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 or the provisions of the Louisiana Public Records Act (La. R.S. 44:1 et seq.).”
FINISH 3132 COALITION
Elliott Stonecipher’s reports, essays and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest. No compensation of any kind has been solicited or accepted for this work. This work is protected, and no other use of it is permitted without the written consent of Mr. Stonecipher.