The Oklahoma State Department of Health appears to be stalling its compliance with an open records request from The Oklahoman, an action that furthers speculation about the agency’s troubles and underscores a simple point: Failure to comply with open records requests is always a mistake.
Alas, delays in meeting open records requests are nothing new. An argument could be made that a handful Oklahoma state agencies and political leaders have fostered a culture of noncompliance over the past seven years.
While a number of agencies are appropriately responsive and should be praised for that, Gov. Mary Fallin’s office has been sued, former Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been sued and local public bodies have also run afoul of the spirit of the law.
NonDoc currently awaits compliance with open records requests from a handful of school districts that received the requests this past summer. The superintendent of one district, Deer Creek Public Schools, will not even return phone calls about the request. (That matter at hand is not a scandal but rather a simple request for public records.)
The Oklahoman seeking records for public
Specifically regarding the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the two-month time period for requested emails by The Oklahoman should be concerning.
From Dale Denwalt’s Dec. 1 article in The Oke:
The Oklahoman first asked for emails Oct. 3, weeks before news reports first indicated problems at the agency. According to sources, the emails could reveal specifics about how former Health Department officials allegedly let the department fall into financial despair by hiding years of overspending and using federal grant money improperly.
The request was for emails between the Health Department and another agency over a six-month span.
An agency spokesman gave several reasons for the delay, including staff turnover. A month after the request was filed, Health Commissioner Terry Cline resigned, and the next day, the agency’s top lawyer was forced out. Spokesman Tony Sellars also said that at one point, officials realized there were emails that weren’t collected in the first search.
Three weeks after the initial request, Sellars told The Oklahoman that a software program must search more than 2,500 individual email accounts — and suggested limiting the request so the search could be narrowed.
On Nov. 13, Sellars said the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which ran the search, had collected the emails and turned them over to the Health Department for a final review. Then on Monday of this week, interim Health Commissioner Preston Doerflinger announced the appointment of a new general counsel.
“We are reviewing requests with our new general counsel tomorrow, and I hope to be able to send you something after that,” Sellars told The Oklahoman that same day.
The Health Department has still not provided the emails.
Media matter, even when government investigates itself
To be sure, there are enough cooks in the kitchen concerning the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s financial implosion. Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones has been auditing, Oklahoma Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger has been appointed interim manager and Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s multi-county grand jury has been hearing testimony to determine whether there is a criminal element to the scandal that broke at the end of October.
The Oklahoma House of Representatives has even formed a Special Investigative Committee focused on the OSDH, initially issuing subpoenas to Doerflinger and two other executive branch members before withdrawing them.
So why should the media’s records requests to the Oklahoma State Department of Health be of equal value? Why not simply allow the aforementioned politicians and bureaucrats to ruminate on the information and come to their conclusions?
The answers to those questions should be self-evident: Left to their own devices, politicians and bureaucrats often fail to manage the public’s finances in an appropriate manner. Concerning the Oklahoma State Department of Health situation, they are now sniping at one another with investigative committees, competing press releases and political posturing.
While limitations exist to the Oklahoma Open Records Act, arguing that this is too big of a disaster to provide media with documents is not a legitimate government position.
Instead, it is further proof that local, state and federal entities always make the wrong decision when they choose not to comply with open records requests.