paul.jpg Editor and ex-con Paul Wright

One of his "ongoing priorities," state Attorney General Rob McKenna likes to say, is the promotion of "government accountability by

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Mr. Sunshine's Dark Side

paul.jpg Editor and ex-con Paul Wright

One of his "ongoing priorities," state Attorney General Rob McKenna likes to say, is the promotion of "government accountability by encouraging open access to government." But quietly wending their ways through the legislature are Senate Bill 6294 and House Bill 3219, companion measures requested by McKenna, which will restrict that same access.

Former prison inmate Paul Wright, now the editor of Prison Legal News, thinks the bills in fact will discourage the people’s right to know and prevent any new crusaders like him from lawfully seeking government information.

As an ex-con, Wright doesn’t expect sentiment to be on his side. After all, if approved, the legislation would change the way compensation is paid when the state violates the public record laws involving prison inmates: any penalties won in court would be awarded to the crime victims compensation program rather than to a prisoner whose record request was improperly handled.

McKenna, the self-professed Mr. Sunshine, maintains such awards are a “lottery" attracting unreasonable prisoner record requests, around 4,000 a year. If there’s no possibility for an inmate payday when courts find the state unlawfully failed to disclose public information, perhaps fewer requests will be made.

But this isn’t about paperwork, it’s about accountability, says Wright. Rather than comply with existing law -- and avoid such penalties in the first place -- McKenna would prefer to stifle the access he claims to support. In his capacity as PLN editor, Wright last year won a record $541,000 fine from the state (and McKenna’s office) for illegally withholding disciplinary records of state prison medical providers (about $200,000 of the award went to PLN, the rest to legal costs).

Wright is free, having served his 17 years for second-degree murder of a drug dealer. But the records case began while he was an inmate, editing PLN from his cell. If this proposed law had been in effect, his publication would not have received compensation for a long, commendable effort to open state records as the law required; in fact, the effort might never have been made, and McKenna would not have had to disclose not only the records on poor state medical care -- one inmate was left to die in his cell -- but the fact that the Department of Corrections intentionally destroyed some of the data.

"Very few prisoners -- four, maybe? -- have won public disclosure suits against the DOC in the past few years," Wright says. "And most requests are from prisoners seeking to examine their prison or medical files to get documents they need on their sentencing." The legislation won’t affect that volume, he says, but it will end any more long and lawful crusades from within, "and that's what it's really about."

 
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