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Hartford Loses Appeal Of Freedom Of Information Decision

By JEFFREY B. COHEN | Courant Staff Writer

July 26, 2008

A state court judge has dismissed the city's appeal of a state Freedom of Information Commission decision, upholding a $400 fine against a city attorney for unlawfully denying access to public documents.

The city has argued for nearly 16 months that public documents it turned over to the state investigators conducting a corruption probe into the administration of Mayor Eddie A. Perez are exempt from public disclosure.

The Courant requested those documents in March 2007, but city attorneys refused to release the documents, arguing that they wanted "to protect the integrity of the investigation."

The Courant filed a complaint with the FOI Commission, which ruled unanimously in the newspaper's favor last fall, saying that the city had acted "without reasonable grounds." The court also ordered that Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Nasto pay a $400 fine. The city appealed that decision in state court.

In February, Superior Court Judge Henry S. Cohn ordered the city to release some of the documents in question. They confirmed that state criminal investigators had been interested since at least February 2007 in a no-bid deal between the city and North End political figure Abraham L. Giles.

Then, on July 11, Cohn held a hearing in New Britain Superior Court to discuss whether or not to uphold the fines against Nasto. At that hearing, Richard Wareing a lawyer with Pepe & Hazard, a firm hired by the city to handle the appeal argued that the fines should be dismissed. Nasto was right to deny access to the documents in question because while the documents themselves were public, the compilation of those documents sent to state investigators was not, Wareing said.

Cohn told Wareing he was unconvinced.

"That's just not FOI in this state," Cohn said. "That's not what it's founded on. That's not the principle."

In Cohn's ruling Wednesday, he said the city's argument that the documents were exempt because they were records of a law enforcement agency and their disclosure would prejudice a pending investigation "lacks validity."

Cohn again took issue with the city's argument that the compilation of city documents sent to state investigators was exempt from disclosure.

"The basis of freedom of information laws is that the public has the right to examine any public record created and retained by a public agency," Cohn wrote.

Finally, Wareing argued that Nasto didn't deserve to be fined $400 for his action because he had "a plausible legal argument for refusing the records" and that fines are reserved for blatant conduct.

Cohn disagreed and upheld the fine.

It is unclear whether the city will appeal Cohn's decision. Sarah Barr, spokeswoman for Perez, said that Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr. was unavailable for comment.

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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