No one requesting public records should risk being slapped with an expensive lawsuit. But in Oregon, it’s happening all too often.
There’s a growing pattern of lawsuits that could dissuade the public from asking for basic information about their government. Whatever else they accomplish, these suits threaten to drown critics in legal paperwork and lawyer bills. Which might, in fact, be the point.
Consider the case of Charles Longjaw, a convicted killer who was released from state supervision, and then killed a homeless man in Portland in 2017. The Malheur Enterprise requested records to explain why the state released Longjaw. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum ordered the state’s security review board to release the records. But instead of complying with the order, the review board sued the newspaper, which had to scramble to raise $20,000 to defend itself. Fortunately, Gov. Kate Brown intervened in that case and told the state to knock it off.
Also in 2017, reporter Beth Slovic and parent Kim Sordyl wanted to better understand disciplinary procedures in the Portland Public Schools. They filed public records requests seeking the names of all district employees on paid administrative leave and the length of the leave. When the Multnomah County District Attorney ordered the district to release the records, the district turned around and sued Slovic and Sordyl. The targets of this lawsuit eventually won.
Last month, The Bulletin asked the Department of Environmental Quality to release records so the public can better understand the state’s Clean Fuels Program. It is designed to lower the “carbon intensity” of road fuels.
One way for fuel producers and importers to lower the carbon intensity of their products is to blend in lower-carbon fuels such as ethanol. Fuel producers also can buy credits from producers of green fuels and entities such as transit districts. Oregon consumers end up footing the bill.
So where does the money go? Who benefits? Have oil companies concocted a way to scoop up big additional profits?
Oregonians can’t really know. The state releases aggregate sales data monthly on a website. But there are no details. Who is doing the buying and selling? What are the prices?
The Bulletin requested those details. The DEQ denied the request. The Bulletin appealed to the Oregon Department of Justice, which ordered their release.
Chevron U.S.A. quickly filed a lawsuit to block the release of the records, naming the DEQ, DOJ and The Bulletin’s editor, Erik Lukens, and requesting attorneys’ fees. Having to fight such a lawsuit could be lengthy and very expensive.
Such lawsuits serve as a warning to anyone who might want to request government records, thus undermining the state’s public records laws. When they reconvene in January, lawmakers should ask whether they’re happy with a system that increasingly provides transparency only to the well-heeled and powerful.