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Hartford Appealing FOI Fine

Says Attorney Was Protected By Status

By JEFFREY B. COHEN | Courant Staff Writer

August 16, 2008

A state court judge last month ruled that the FOI commission was right to fine a city attorney $400 for violating the law when he denied access to public documents.

Now, the city has decided to appeal that judge's ruling, saying in court documents this week that Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Nasto shouldn't be fined because, among other things, he was acting in his official capacity as a municipal employee.

The appeal could wind up costing the city $30,000, bringing the city's total legal bill for the case easily above $50,000, a source familiar with the case said.

Corporation Counsel John Rose would not comment on the case or his decision to appeal. Mayor Eddie A. Perez denied a request for an interview.

The city has argued for nearly 17 months that public documents it turned over to the state investigators conducting a corruption probe into the Perez administration are exempt from public disclosure.

The Courant requested those documents in March 2007, but city attorneys refused to release them, 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 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.

Richard Wareing a lawyer with Pepe & Hazard, a firm hired by the city to handle the appeal has argued that the fine should be dismissed. Wareing has argued that Nasto didn't deserve to be fined $400 because he had "a plausible legal argument of refusing the records" and because fines are reserved for blatant conduct.

But in a ruling dated July 23, Cohn dismissed the city's case and upheld the fine, saying that Nasto was experienced in responding to public information requests and put on no evidence that the records in question were exempt. Cohn also said that the FOI commission had acted within its discretionary rights.

In the current appeal of Cohn's decision, Wareing writes that the court was wrong to uphold the fine because Nasto was "acting in his official capacity in a case where there was no clear precedent and competing statutory provisions and public policy interests."

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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