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Secrecy Rules

James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s open government reporter, examines government secrecy in Minnesota and beyond.

Lawmakers fume over blacked-out MnDOT records

A redacted page that MnDOT provided to lawmakers

Appalling. Disrespectful. Disappointing. Arrogant.

Those were some of the words state House members used to describe what they received — or more properly, what they didn’t receive — after they asked for records from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The heavily redacted documents outlined the $105 million in federal transportation money that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature are squabbling over, information Republican legislators say is essential to making the most well-informed decisions about road spending.

Members of the House committee that deals with data practices last week were concerned about the big black boxes that blocked out some of the e-mails and other records created by state officials while drafting the governor’s budget outline last fall.

One page with a heading about impacts to MnDOT’s construction program is completely obscured.

An e-mail chain among officials in Dayton’s office and MnDOT includes the words, “Please don’t forward,” and then below, a black rectangle over whatever was written.

Transportation officials said they have every right to redact the documents.

“MnDOT is just following the letter of the law,” agency spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said Wednesday.

Just like average citizens, legislators often file data requests to get information from the executive branch. Sometimes the result is records with heavy redactions — or outright refusals from the state agency.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the House transportation committee chairman, brought the redacted records to a recent civil law and data practices committee meeting to highlight what he felt was a late and inadequate response from the administration.

He said the data request originated last fall with now-former Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine.

Three months went by with no reply, Torkelson said. So Torkelson renewed the request himself.

This time, MnDOT handed over records, as well as a letter from Joshua Root, associate general counsel for MnDOT. Root wrote that the law allows withholding data about “preliminary drafts” of the governor’s budget.

Other data was classified as “data on employees,” and most personnel data is nonpublic, he wrote.

The explanations didn’t satisfy Torkelson.

“We feel that there’s information in these e-mails that we have every right to see,” Torkelson said.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, chairwoman of the data practices committee, said she didn’t see how the state could justify withholding a document titled “talking points.”

“It really does seem like there’s a coverup here,” she said. “It’s very troubling.”

Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, said the incident raises troubling questions about the administration. “I just find it appalling that they have totally redacted e-mails ... I think it proves the point that they’re not being up front and honest with the process.”

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, pointed out that for all the outrage, legislators have no obligation to share their own e-mails because they exempted themselves from the state’s public records law.

“There’s still a certain measure of hypocrisy in insisting on it,” Lesch said.

Nevertheless, Lesch said that if the committee really wanted to know what was in the records, it could exercise its subpoena power with a two-thirds vote, something that hasn’t been done for years.

The subpoena talk quickly subsided.

Instead, Scott settled for a “loud message” that she hoped the representative at the meeting would take back to the agency.

James Eli Shiffer • 612-673-4116

 

Consumer complaints are searchable in Ohio, secret in Minnesota

Attorney General Lori Swanson (Star Tribune photo by Glen Stubbe)

Sunday's Star Tribune story on the growing secrecy in Minnesota noted that state law allows minimal access to records of the attorney general, the state's chief defender of consumers against bad businesses. Consumer complaints and investigations are off-limits to the public, and that's fine by Attorney General Lori Swanson. Her spokesman, Benjamin Wogsland, said the law protects consumers' privacy and prevents misinterpretation. Even the volume of complaints about a business could be misconstrued, Wogsland said.

In the era of free-for-all complaining on Yelp and Twitter, Swanson's counterparts in the world of consumer protection are increasingly opening up their complaint files to the public. 

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine offers a searchable database of complaints. So does the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs. Missouri AG Josh Hawley has a complaint search function with more limited data

The feds have also changed their tune. You can search complaints about financial products and servicesbroadcasters,consumer products and cars. Even the private Better Business Bureau posts thousands of complaints online. 

Swanson's website dispenses lots of advice to consumers on how to avoid getting ripped off. Except for those instances in which Swanson presents victims of a scam or other bad practices at a news conference, Minnesotans won't be learning directly from the stories of aggrieved consumers any time soon.