In the state of Washington if a citizen requests a public record, it should be turned over unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. That's the law. But the KING 5 Investigators have found more people than ever are accusing the state of breaking that law and it's costing taxpayers millions.
By analyzing 2,500 legal records obtained through the Public Records Act, KING found payouts for public records lawsuits ballooned from $108,000 in 2006 to nearly $1.7 million last year -- $4.8 million dollars total since 2006 for alleged violations of the Public Records Act.
"You could say it's a waste of tax dollars," said Toby Nixon, President of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. "If the agency had understood the law in the first place, and made the records available when they were requested instead of pushing back, then a lawsuit would never had had to have been filed."
Amber Wright of Elma, Washington accused the state of trampling on the Public Records Act. In 2010, when she was 18, she sued the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) for keeping records from her. The court agreed."The Court finds that there was an obstruction of justice, that the obstruction is clear, and that it insults the citizens for a government entity to proceed as DSHS proceeded in this matter," wrote Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frederick Fleming.
"The judge levied the biggest Public Records Act penalty in the history of the state of Washington, not just because some mistakes were made, but because they made a mistake and they continued to compound it by thwarting this sex abuse victim's right to get her own records," said Amber’s attorney, David P. Moody.
Amber Wright’s story
Amber Wright led a tortured childhood at the hands of her father, Michael Wright. Her mother was out of the picture. Her father kept her secluded by refusing to let her attend school. As a young teenager Amber was subjected to sexual and physical abuse on a routine basis.
"He's supposed to be the person to be my dad. You're supposed to love me, take care of me; cheer me on when I went to school. But it wasn't (like that). (He) was like my worst enemy," said Amber.
When Amber was 14-years-old Child Protective Services (CPS) removed her from the family home in Sumner and placed her in foster care. Complaints had come in that Wright was sexually abusing her and other girls. CPS investigated then returned her to her father. From there, Amber’s world got even darker. Drugs became part of the routine. She’s living now with hepatitis C contracted from dirty needles.
"He used to shoot me up with cocaine with a needle, and heroin, and meth was his big one," said Amber.
After getting to safety at the age of 15, Amber was adopted by a relative, Michelle Bossard. In 2009 they sued DSHS for allegedly failing to protect her. The next year, they sued the state for withholding records pertaining to their case. They believed the records would help their case and explain why she was returned to an abuser.
“How is that possible? I had to have those answers,” said Bossard.
Bossard began collecting Amber’s records and noticed some were missing, including a tape recording of Amber recounting the abuse to social workers after she was away from her father for good. Bossard was in the room when the interview took place.
"I asked them (social workers), did we get that recording? And they said what recording? And I said, well, there's a recording," said Bossard.
She was right. DSHS turned the tape over a year and a half later. In a legal brief, DSHS told the court they "inadvertently missed" the tape in a mammoth records request involving more than 5,000 documents.
Attorney General Rob McKenna oversees the legal defense of state agencies in these cases. He ran for office as a champion of open records and government. McKenna says the biggest reason for the increase in payouts is that requests for records have tripled in the last ten years.
“What you don’t see are the thousands of requests that were handled with no controversy and no litigation,” said McKenna.
On top of that, McKenna says more requesters are suing state agencies in hopes of catching the agency in a costly mistake.
"The fact is something very important has happened over the last decade. There are a relative handful of individuals, including inmates, who have figured out they can make a lot of money gaming the system."
Inmates collect from behind bars
Records obtained by KING 5 show a small number of inmates have sued the Department of Corrections (DOC) multiple times from behind bars for violations of the Public Records Act. In Washington state, prisoners are as entitled to public records as other citizens.
Convicted kidnapper Derek Gronquist has collected the most: $110,000 in settlement agreements and judgments while in prison. Convicted murderer Shawn Greenhalgh’s collected $75,000. The state’s paid convicted arsonist Allan Parmalee $45,000.
"They got all kinds of time, they got lots of time," said McKenna.
McKenna says it's not just inmates, but greedy lawyers, including Amber Wright’s legal team who are also lining their pockets over small records mistakes. In the Wright case, the historic judgment related to three records that weren’t turned over.
“For three records? This is the problem, the whole regime, the whole system of public records and transparency is threatened by ridiculous litigation,” said McKenna. “I don’t think that's what the public records act was intended for. I don't think it was intended for people to make money."
Amber says she wasn't out for money but justice.
“Finally it's getting taken care of. Finally people are hearing. Finally it's getting out," said Amber.
"I sued them (DSHS) because I wanted them to know that we are done, we're speaking up. Just because we’re the little people, we are allowed to have them (public records). I want to make sure they're held accountable for that," said Bossard.
Amber’s father was convicted of molesting and assaulting his daughter and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
McKenna has proposed legislation to cut down on costly payouts. He wants to establish an administrative review process for public records disputes that he says would be cheaper and quicker than a court resolution.
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