Last year, the INDY, along with a coalition of media and nonprofit partners, sued the McCrory administration over its consistent failure to produce public records in a timely manner, as required by law.
On October 18, the INDY filed a new lawsuit, separate from the original coalition, against McCrory, seeking access to public records that the governor’s office has not provided. All of those records were written about in our October 12 issue, and include communications within the governor’s office and communications between the governor’s office and other agencies and organizations, regarding issues such as HB 2 and the coal ash controversy. The governor’s chief counsel, Bob Stephens, accepted that lawsuit on October 27.
And yesterday, the INDY filed a second lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Commerce, 189 days after the paper requested “copies of records reflecting salaries and whatever other compensation for the Industrial Commission’s commissioners, deputy commissioners, and administrators from 1/1/13 to 4/25/2016 and Industrial Commission annual reports from 2013, 2014, and 2015.”
Yesterday, oral arguments in INDY‘s joint lawsuit with other media groups, including The News & Observer and Capital Broadcasting (WRAL), as well as the N.C. Justice Center and the Southern Environmental Law Center, were heard at the N.C. Court of Appeals. The legal team for Governor McCrory claimed “sovereign immunity” from complying with the state’s public records law, as WRAL’s Mark Binker reports:
In addition to suing for access to particular public records, the coalition has asked the courts to order state officials to adjust their practices so that records more swiftly become available, in keeping with the law’s admonition that records should be brought forth “as soon as practicable.”
But David Wright III, a lawyer representing the administration in the matter, said the state should have “sovereign immunity” from the claims, invoking a legal tradition that citizens can’t sue the state unless they have been expressly allowed to do so by law. In this case, Wright said, the media coalition can sue for specific records but not to change the administration’s pattern and practice. The legislature, he said, provided for no such legal remedy.
“They’re asking for additional remedies from this court, which is directly contradictory to what this court has counseled in the past,” Wright said.
This is not the first solo legal action taking by a member of the media coalition to gain access to records. TheCharlotte Observer waited six months for a request on emails regarding HB 2 to be fulfilled before filing another lawsuit against the administration on October 7; ten days later, the administration fulfilled the request.
“This administration’s cavalier attitude toward transparency must end, regardless of the result of next week’s election,” says INDY editor Jeffrey Billman. “These are public records that the public has the right to inspect and review. The administration’s failure to comply with the law and provide those records, and then to hide behind the ‘sovereign immunity’ nonsense—as they tried to do yesterday—is inexcusable.”
The INDY has reached out to the governor’s office for comment and will update should communications director Josh Ellis respond to our phone call and email.
You can read the lawsuits, as well as Stephens’s acceptance of the October 18 lawsuit, below.