The following blog post is one of several that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Linda Lotridge Levin | Access/RI
When Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island and members of the state’s House of Representatives recently demanded that records relating to one of the biggest and most publicized loan investigations in the state be made public, it was an early Sunshine Week gift for the public and especially for advocates of open government.
The 38 Studios case had been in the news for close to seven years and was costing taxpayers $75 million in loan payments. However, open government advocates railed against the continued closure of the investigation into the case, and apparently both the governor and state legislators were listening, which isn’t always the case.
The House recently passed a bill that would make all records, including grand jury documents, open to the public. The Senate is expected to pass a similar bill. Members of the House said the bill “sends a message to the public that no one is trying to hide anything.” About the same time, Gov. Raimondo announced that she plans to ask the court to release all documents gathered during the investigation.
These were the latest developments in the saga over the failed video-game deal, which has now become a fight over the public’s access to documents resulting from a criminal investigation of the matter that ended last summer with no charges being filed. Unlike other elected officials, Peter Kilmartin, the state’s attorney general, remains adamant that the records remain closed, in large part because he said he fears a civil lawsuit in the future.
Having public officials demand the 38 Studio records be open was a breath of fresh air to the open government advocates, especially Access/RI, a coalition of non-profit organizations that believes in transparency in government. The organizations include the Rhode Island Press Association, the ACLU of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters, and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
38 Studios is a complex case that began in 2010 when retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling asked for and received a $75 million loan guarantee in Rhode Island state bonds to develop and produce a single player action video game at a headquarters in Providence. He claimed the company, named 38 Studios for his Red Sox jersey number, would create jobs in a state that at the time had the fourth highest unemployment rate in the country. It was too tempting for Rhode Island public officials to pass up.
Unfortunately, work had just begun on the video game when 38 Studios made a loan payment to the state of $1.25 million in the form of a check that bounced. Then it was unable to make its payroll, and the new company declared bankruptcy leaving the state’s taxpayers to repay the $75 million loan. Until now, it had been a more or less futile struggle by the news media and other open government advocates to gain access to details of both the deliberations to bring Schilling’s company to Rhode Island and the bankruptcy and its aftermath. That is, until public officials began calling for the records to be made public.
While this remains one of the seminal open government victories of recent months, there remains more work to do to ensure transparency in a state that has too often shrouded its work in secrecy.
For instance, the state’s Department of Environmental Management recently announced plans to build a $7.2 million visitors’ center in the Arcadia Management Area, in a pristine wooded area of southwest Rhode Island. Groundbreaking is expected soon. The site was chosen five years ago with no public input. When neighbors learned about it, they immediately asked for a meeting with DEM officials. More than 100 neighbors attended a March 9 meeting to protest the location of the center. Janet Coit, the DEM director, said she was surprised at the protest and then apologized for not having announced plans earlier.
For the second year in a row, Access/RI is asking the General Assembly to amend the Access to Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. Neither set of amendments reached the floor of the legislature last year.
The amendments to APRA include increasing the fines for violating the law. Changes to the Open Meetings Act include expanding the definition of posting minutes electronically, requiring that public bodies digitally record their meetings and post them to their websites, and decreasing the required number of days to post the announcement of a meeting.
Linda Lotridge Levin is president of Access/RI. The organization includes representatives from the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, the ACLU of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.