State Must Pay Half A Million to Paper for Withholding Records

By: The state Department of Corrections has agreed to pay a penalty of $541,000 for wrongly withholding public records from the publisher of a prison watchdog newspaper, Prison Legal News.

The agreement, filed Friday in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia, includes an admission that the agency destroyed 19 documents related to the discipline of prison medical providers, documents that should have been released to the newspaper.

Seven years ago, Paul Wright requested records relating to the discipline of state medical providers from 1996 to 2000. Wright then ran Prison Legal News from behind bars. The Department of Corrections provided some documents, but it blacked out the staff names. It said it did that in order to maintain prison security.

Two years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that the blacked out names violated the law, and it ordered the Department of Corrections to pay penalties of between $5 and $100 a day and to pay lawyer fees.

In 2006, the Department of Corrections acknowledged that some of the documents had been destroyed. That constituted a second violation of the law.

The penalty is the largest ever levied in Washington state for a violation of the state's Open Public Records Act, which entitles citizens to view the paper trail of public agencies, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, the newspaper's attorney.

The fine tops the past record of $425,000 paid by King County to Seattle businessman Armen Yousoufian for records related to the construction of Seahawks Stadium.

"The bad thing is this is the taxpayer's money," said Earl-Hubbard. But "it sends a message to agencies it that if you violate the law, it will have an impact on you in the future."

In the agreement, the DOC agreed to pay Prison Legal News $200,000 in fines for withholding the documents, and to pay Earl-Hubbard's firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, $341,000 in fees and costs. The firm, which also represents The Seattle Times, took the case pro bono, but with the understanding it would seek attorney fees.

Wright said Prison Legal News would use the award to pay for office space. Meanwhile, he said he has now filed an updated request seeking medical disciplinary records from 2000 to present.

The DOC and an attorney with the Attorney General's office were not available for comment Friday.


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