Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Journal Sues DOT Over Documents
By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Albuquerque Journal is suing the New Mexico Department of Transportation, alleging that the agency violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act by withholding documents sought as part of an investigation into the agency's practices and the use of public funds.
The newspaper filed its complaint Monday in state District Court, naming as defendants the agency, its custodian of records and a handful of employees who allegedly participated in the decision to withhold records that had been requested under the act.
"The department has violated the IPRA in order to derail and obstruct an investigation into potential corrupt practices and incompetent management of public funds by high-ranking public officials in the employ of NMDOT," the complaint states.
S.U. Mahesh, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said Tuesday that the agency turned over the requested documents to the Journal on Monday.
Transportation Secretary Gary Giron also sent a letter to the newspaper explaining that the failures to initially release the documents "were inadvertent and were not intentional."
"I am undertaking certain steps to assure that it does not happen in the future," Giron wrote. "I am instructing members of our staff handling records requests to work more closely with our attorneys to assure that the law is complied with."
Charles Peifer, an attorney for the Journal, said Tuesday that the newspaper will continue with its complaint despite the department's assurances.
"We have serious questions as to why we only got the records after we filed the lawsuit when they are now admitting that these records have been public records all along," Peifer said.
The complaint claims the defendants engaged in a pattern and practice of secretly withholding public records, falsely denying the existence of public records that had been requested and violating the records inspection act by failing to explain their decision to withhold documents that had been requested.
The newspaper had asked for letters, reports or memos sent to the department from the Federal Highway Administration and the department's responses between January 2007 and March 2009 regarding the state's computer system, SHARE.
Except for one letter, a stack of 162 documents released last week by the department did not include any correspondence between the two agencies' officials. However, the Journal obtained more than half a dozen such letters elsewhere.
The Journal also had sought documents related to a billboard owned by House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, that was slated to be torn down because of an upcoming construction project. The billboard lacked permits and that meant Lujan wouldn't be eligible for reimbursement.
Giron said in his letter that a spokesman for the agency failed to follow procedures when informing the Journal that some records related to the billboard were being withheld due to executive privilege.
In the case regarding the SHARE documents, Giron explained that one of two packets of information was misplaced and only one was given to the newspaper.
Peifer said he's skeptical that the agency's refusal to turn over the documents was inadvertent given that the Journal already had concerns about the handling of the earlier request regarding the billboard records.
"Their failure a second time to do this leads us to be concerned," he said.
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