The state of Washington agreed in December to pay $18,000 in attorneys’ fees and penalties as a result of a blatant attempt by the Department of Social and Health Services to sidestep public records laws on behalf of a union whose influence over the government of this state has become all too pervasive at every level.
While it’s doubtful the amount of the award itself will have any real deterrent effect – after all, it’s only the taxpayers’ money – the case does include a court order that can be cited the next time the unions and the state agencies work together to circumvent transparency and open government.
In January 2016, the Freedom Foundation submitted a public records request to DSHS to obtain the schedules for contracting appointments that taxpayer-compensated home healthcare providers are required by the state to attend.
The Freedom Foundation also sought copies of union materials the agency distributes to caregivers during these meetings.
As part of its mission to inform these workers of their constitutional rights, the Freedom Foundation wanted to speak to them outside of their contracting appointments and inform them that they did not have to become members of the union – contrary to what they might hear inside.
In response to the Freedom Foundation’s request, DSHS first said it would release the records by March 3, 2016. But when that date arrived, agency officials moved the release date back to March 22.
Was this because the agency was having trouble assembling the requested documents? No, it was to give SEIU enough time to request a court order preventing release of the records entirely.
And just for good measure, on March 22, DSHS gave the union an extension by again delaying the release date until “sometime after” a court hearing on March 25.
Here’s the catch: DSHS’s actions clearly violate Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA), which specifically prohibits state agencies from refusing to comply with valid public records requests for the benefit of a third party.
The PRA also requires the state to provide the timeliest and fullest assistance to the requestor—not the entity trying to block the release of the records.
DSHS’s actions were particularly harmful in this circumstance because it played right into SEIU’s hands.
It’s no secret that SEIU employs all sorts of tactics and schemes to prevent care providers from learning about their constitutional rights. Filing meritless lawsuits and endless motions, for example, can easily delay by months or years the timely release of what are clearly public records.
But the Freedom Foundation isn’t easily deterred, nor is it intimidated by the vast resources wielded by its adversaries. The group filed a lawsuit and, recognizing the clear illegality of its conduct, DSHS opted not to put up a fight.
Instead, it “concede(d) that it unlawfully withheld the records from March 3, 2016, to March 25, 2016” and that “some penalty is mandatory.”
DSHS ultimately agreed to pay the Freedom Foundation $18,137 in fines and fees, and promised to amend its policy and no longer delays the release of public records solely for the benefit of a third party.
In both respects, it’s a major victory for the Public Records Act and transparency in Washington.