By KYLE NIEDERPRUEM, The Indianapolis Star and News
February 22, 1998
County government officials routinely violate state law by refusing to release public records, an unprecedented statewide audit found.
Seven Indiana newspapers sent personnel to all 92 counties in August seeking public records including death certificates, crime logs and reports, school coach salaries and school board minutes.
The results were startling.
Some of those who asked for records were lied to, harassed, peppered with questions, and told subpoenas and court orders were required.
The worst offenders: county sheriffs' departments.
Sixty-six Indiana sheriffs (71.7 percent) denied access to crime reports, and 50 (54.3 percent) denied access to crime logs.
Here's how some sheriffs responded when asked for public records:
"How do I know you're not an ax murderer?" Rush County Sheriff Doug Gosser asked.
Eldon Fancher and Jon Oldham, sheriffs in Ohio and Decatur counties, said a subpoena was needed to see a crime log.
When The Evansville Courier sent Jamie Jones, a summer intern, to Pike County to ask to see the public crime log, Sheriff Jeff Clements ran a license plate check on her car without her knowledge and then demanded her driver's license. But unlike most sheriffs, he let her see the log.
The most open agencies were public school districts.
Seventy-nine Indiana school districts (85.9 percent) granted requests for school board minutes, the best overall rate for any record.
Gov. Frank O'Bannon said it may be time for a task force to review state access laws.
"My first impulse is to disclose as much as possible," O'Bannon said. "Disclosure certainly reduces the degree of actions and events happening that are a danger to the public good."
Indiana has had mediocre access laws for decades, with no penalties or fines for violations, and limited avenues of appeal. And Indiana judges have made a series of decisions since 1993 that have eroded public access.
Indiana lawmakers have rarely proposed measures to strengthen either the Indiana Open Door Law or the Access to Public Records Act.
Executives with the Indiana Sheriffs' Association, based in Indianapolis, were surprised at the audit results.
Each four-year election cycle, new sheriffs are offered training about public records. A thick how-to manual is provided, with specific sections about the law. A monthly newsletter, written by an attorney, provides updates about court rulings.
The association also provides a toll-free telephone number so sheriffs can call for quick advice.
"It's a little hard to believe," said John O. Catey, executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs' Association. "Some of them are protective of their records for whatever reason.
"The only thing we can tell them is, ëHey, fellas, this is public information,'" Catey said.
While national and state surveys continue to show that Americans are worried about crime, county sheriffs' departments don't make it easy to get information about what's happening.
Anyone, by law, should be able to walk into a sheriff's office and receive copies of daily crime logs or incident reports. You don't have to say who you are or why you want the information.
Jana Griffith, who spent seven years working with crime victims in Marion County, said disclosure is important.
"If there's a rapist in my neighborhood, I have a right to know," she said. "I hate to think the public is put in jeopardy for lack of information."
To fight crime, a nosy and well-informed neighbor often is the best remedy.
"Knowledge is power. Period," Ms. Griffith said. "That applies to both the people providing the information and the people getting it."
Scott Robinett, a Marion County deputy sheriff for 16 years and now a private investigator, has requested records in nearly one-fourth of Indiana's 92 counties. He wasn't surprised that sheriffs were the worst violators.
"Sheriffs are king of the county. Don't ever forget it. Who can lock up the sheriff? Only the coroner or the feds. They know that."
Officials who denied access to the public also have routinely threatened and bullied Robinett, who investigates insurance fraud, he said.
Robinett routinely asks police for complaints filed by people who claim they've been the victims of property crimes such as arson and burglary. The records can reveal a pattern.
If a sheriff or other official denies access to a record, the requester has only one avenue of appeal in Indiana ó to hire a lawyer and sue.
James Tygrett did that.
He won a favorable out-of-court settlement against the Avon Town Council in west-central Indiana. The council agreed to post its meeting notices legally, apologize to the community and pay several thousand dollars in legal fees.
But Tygrett also is more involved than most people. He's president of a homeowners association in Hendricks County and ran unsuccessfully for the school board. He attends even obscure government meetings dealing with drainage issues.
"All these things have a direct bearing on where I live," said Tygrett, a 47-year-old contract administrator for an airline.
He notes with frustration that the only remedy provided to him is a lawsuit. He was forced to sue the town he supports with taxes. The town then had to use his taxes to pay for being wrong.
"That's not right," he said.
Instead, Tygrett believes that public officials should receive mandatory training on access laws. He also thinks there should be penalties for those who deny citizens access to public meetings and records.
The public doesn't understand what's at stake, either. Once a little bit of openness is lost, Tygrett said, it's easier to lose more and more.
Sometimes, denying access to records happens less directly. If a public agency charges excessive copying fees for public documents, it can make them unaffordable and unobtainable.
Wendy Brant found that happening in Boone County; different agencies charged different rates. Because of those willy-nilly rates, she's running for county commissioner.
She also pressured the local government, demanding a consistent policy. In response, the Boone County Council passed a somewhat bizarre ordinance.
The result was a 10-cent-per-page copying cost, which is what Ms. Brant had hoped to accomplish. The ordinance also sets a maximum $2,500 penalty for any county official who doesn't comply.
But it goes beyond state law by prohibiting the dissemination of any copies made by a citizen. Until someone sues to challenge it, it will remain local law.
Ms. Brant favors penalties for all government officials, a measure that has failed repeatedly in the Indiana General Assembly.
"It will make them accountable," she said. She doesn't believe elected officials who say accountability comes from being voted out of office for breaking the law.
"Fiddle," Ms. Brant said emphatically.
Among the most sought records are death certificates.
While death certificates are public records, conflicting state laws have led some records custodians to believe they aren't. Efforts have been made to clarify the law, but those attempts have been defeated in the Legislature twice after intense lobbying by health officers who want them secret.
* Kyle Niederpruem, who chairs the Freedom of Information Committee for the national Society of Professional Journalists, is also a founder and board member of FOIndiana.
© 1998 The E.W. Scripps Co.