Open-records laws too often hit closed-door policy

By Vince Vawter, Courier editor

Evansville Courier

February 22, 1998

Does the following scenario make you angry?
You walk into an office which you help support financially and ask for information which state law clearly says is yours. Not only are you not given the information, intimidating tactics are used against you just for requesting the information.

It should make you angry, but you need to know it happens every day in the state of Indiana.

On Page 1 of today’s Courier is the beginning of a five-part series titled "Open Records, Closed Doors." The series exposes the widespread abuses of the state’s open-records laws.

The series is unprecedented in that seven of the state’s largest newspapers collaborated on the series. The series also is unusual in scope because each of Indiana’s 92 counties was examined. In addition to The Courier, newspapers which participated are the Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News, The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne), The Star-Press (Muncie), the Tribune-Star (Terre Haute), The South Bend Tribune and The Times of Northwest Indiana.

The project began last year when summer interns, office clerks and reporters not known by officials were sent to request various public records in all counties. Reporters known to department officials did not take part in the project because we were interested to see how "average citizens" were treated, and we didn’t want anyone to rely on sources to get records.

Five of the most common records were requested: a police incident report, the sheriff’s daily crime log, a death record, school board minutes and the salary of the basketball coaches at each county’s largest high school. Each request and response was noted on a separate sheet. The data were sent to Jim Derk, The Courier’s computer research editor, who placed the information in a relational database which he used for analysis.

While several of the people who made record requests had unusual stories to tell, maybe none was more enlightening than what happened when a Courier summer intern asked for records in Pike County.

Jamie Jones, a 1996 graduate of Memorial High School and who had just completed her freshman year at Harvard University, asked to see the public crime log of the Pike County Sheriff’s Department. She eventually was given the log but not until she provided her name by showing a driver’s license. State law clearly says anyone can request public records without giving a name. Soon afterward, she was asked why the car she was driving was not registered in her name. The car was registered to her father. We can only assume someone in the Sheriff’s Department ran a check on the license plate.

As you can see in the accompanying photo, Ms. Jones is a very presentable young lady with a supremely warm smile.

She, nor any citizen, should not have to jump through any intimidating hoops to receive what state law says belongs to them.

Some readers out there may use the old refrain that this is just a bunch of newspapers sticking their noses again into something that doesn’t concern the rank and file.

This subject should concern the public if for no other reason than possibly to prevent what happened at the Vermillion County Hospital, where more than 100 unexplained deaths occurred. The Terre Haute Tribune-Star pleaded with state Department of Health officials to release death certificates as a possible clue to what might be happening.

The newspaper had to engage in an expensive lawsuit to get the records even as a nurse at the hospital became a clear suspect. While state law says that death certificates are open to the public at the county level where they are recorded, only limited disclosure is allowed once the records reach the state level.

Medical researchers and genealogists are out of luck once death certificates leave the county, and some counties even refuse to release death certificates at the county level. These conflicting laws and noncompliance by authorities are an abomination, but the Legislature refuses to help clean up this mess.

It’s too easy to say this is a case of seven newspapers moaning and groaning. I commend this series to you with the belief that the public’s business must be done in public or we are all at risk.

© 1998 The E.W. Scripps Co.

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