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Hartford's Fighting Freedom Of Information Cases Has Cost More Than $125,000

JEFFREY B. COHEN

April 03, 2009

The city has paid more than $125,000 to outside legal firms in defense of Freedom of Information Act complaints brought against it since 2008, city records show.

Sometimes the city wins, as it recently did with two cases involving a prisoner that cost the city $22,562 in fees paid to attorney Andrew Crumbie.

Sometimes it doesn't. Since March of last year, the city has spent roughly $100,000 on legal fees to defend three complaints brought by The Courant. The state's Freedom of Information Commission ruled against the city in each of the three cases.

"It's a lot of money," said Councilman Matt Ritter, a lawyer who led the council's effort to set up a freedom of information advisory committee. "Short of a real harm to the city, it's just hard for the majority of the people on the council to understand why we're funding these legal appeals."

The city is dealing with a roughly $8.5 million budget deficit this year and a projected $40 million deficit next year. A recent city budget report shows that the corporation counsel's office headed by John Rose and Carl Nasto will need an additional $500,000 to pay its outside counsel bills this year; it expects to make up that money in a settlement claims account.

In February, the state's Freedom of Information Commission ruled against the city in a complaint brought by a person seeking personnel documents. The commission ordered the city to arrange a freedom of information training session to be conducted by the commission's staff. That case cost $2,500, paid to attorney J. Hanson Guest of Guest & Associates.

Two of the cases brought by The Courant arose after the city denied requests for information related to the state's investigation of allegations of corruption at city hall. The city has paid roughly $57,000 to attorney Richard Wareing and his firm Pepe & Hazard for the two cases and other related freedom of information matters. The city lost one of those cases on appeal, and it recently lost a second before the commission.

The third case brought by The Courant arose after Mayor Eddie A. Perez held a closed-door meeting of a task force set up to gauge corporate support for a new arena. The city lost before the commission, and that case is on appeal.

The city has paid Guest & Associates nearly $44,000 for representation in that case.

Sarah Barr, the mayor's spokeswoman, and other administration officials did not respond to requests for comment.

"Anytime you go to court you put your best foot forward," said the council's Democratic majority leader, rJo Winch. "You make your case, you win. If you don't make your case, you pay."

But Ritter said the city might want to be more judicious in its spending.

"When you go to Superior Court, it should be for something that could harm the city. It should not be to prove a point," Ritter said. As for the grand jury documents sought by The Courant, "The FOI Commission ruled we should turn them over, so let someone else appeal in Superior Court," Ritter said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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