CORA is a wonderful thing. But it's not perfect. And it might never be.
The Colorado Open Records Act is what First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg likes to call "a fishing license."
In an era when newspapers are struggling, and local investigative reporting is endangered by shrinking budgets and talent pools (some major universities have chosen to dismantle their journalism departments), a fishing license is more important to the public's right to know than ever.
Having worked 38 years for newspapers in three states, I can testify that without a license, reporters would never reel in the giant shark, or even a few shrimp. That's because records always tell a story — especially important when nobody wants to talk or they're afraid to talk.
The following investigations in my career could not have been done without access laws:
• The Garden City (Kansas) Telegram's investigation of a school superintendent's theft of more than $100,000 from public coffers through use of phony companies and a circuitous reimbursement method for district travel. This story began with a bankruptcy case — an open record — and relied on mountains of school district financial records. The superintendent was convicted of nine felonies.
• The Tulsa Tribune's deep look at a chronically poor-performing water treatment plant that led to a one-page secret agreement between the city and a politically influential engineering firm. The agreement exonerated the firm of any liability for designing the plant, which failed to meet state standards from Day One and had cost thousands in repairs. The engineering firm was banned from bidding on city projects for a time.
• The Colorado Springs Gazette's examination of real estate investments overseen by the El Paso County Retirement Plan's administrator, Mike Witty, which documented charges for real estate transactions nobody knew about. Those charges were cited in little-used public records, and the money trail led to a series of secret bank accounts Witty used to steal from the fund and its retirees. Witty went to prison.
• The Independent's story in 2010 about Sheriff Terry Maketa's favoritism toward certain female employees, based almost entirely on records, at a cost of nearly $500, because nobody wanted to speak — on or off the record. Four years later, people's tongues loosened, and reports filtered out about Maketa's sideline interests. He left office in disgrace.
• The Independent's close look at the city's handling of the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, which found the city was ill-prepared due to poor planning and a communications breakdown among first responders, leading to a chaotic response when flames swept into the city, as thousands of residents barely escaped with their lives. Two people didn't.
• An Independent investigation last year found the city has paid $400,000 in settlements in recent years for excessive use of force by police, that officers are rarely accountable to anyone outside the department and that after officers brutalize citizens, they're returned to duty on the streets. The police chief formed a committee that's currently looking at use-of-force issues and policies, but the stories continue to bubble up — if you know how to access public records.
More problematic is the federal Freedom of Information Act. Requests can languish for years.
In 1993, the Gazette sought reports about a riot at a federal prison near Florence. A year later, a ream-sized package arrived in the mail, with nearly every page totally redacted. The daily newspaper used FOIA with more success during the Air Force Academy's 2003 sexual assault scandal.
More recently, the Independent sought data regarding the Academy's Preparatory School students. Eighteen months later, the data came in, and, after seeking updated data, the Indy published a report showing that prep students didn't cut the mustard academically while at the prep school and Academy, graduated at lower rates than direct admits, and accounted for more than their share of honor code violations. So why the prep school? All signals point to an incubator for Academy sports.
But it's not just the big story that's made possible by digging through public records — records the public has paid for and theoretically owns — but hundreds of other reports rely on them as well. Such as the Indy's coverage of city severance pay practices, how much local officials spend on travel and where they go on the taxpayers' dime, how elected officials communicate with one another using email, what companies get favored "sole source" contracts, and even something so trivia — though with larger implications — as what a City Council aide was up to when abruptly fired by the mayor.
Like I said before, though, CORA isn't perfect; nor is its companion measure, the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act. The latter allows law enforcement agencies to balance the public's right to know against other factors, such as privacy interests of officers and others, and the agency's ability to investigate internal affairs cases. Guess whose interests usually trump whose?
For one thing, the laws require those seeking access to pay search and copy fees, and those charges, if high enough, can effectively sideline an investigation.
For another, as Jeff Roberts with the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition notes, the state's law relies on tech terms from the 1990s and "is so antiquated and so nonspecific that it's practically useless" in gaining access to spreadsheets and information kept digitally that reporters can then analyze. A bill that would have made electronic records available more readily was recently discarded by a committee in the Colorado Legislature.
That means "requesting databases and spreadsheets is a crapshoot in Colorado," Roberts writes.
Nevertheless, the law is what it is, and all good journalists — and citizens, too — should be using their fishing license to the maximum advantage to monitor our government. That's what I'm committed to, so if you drop by our office and find I'm not there, I've probably gone fishing.