Secretly Drafted Bill Would Leave Release of Some Newtown Investigative Records Up To Families

A draft of the bill was released Wednesday afternoon by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office, which has been working behind the scenes in recent weeks on drafting the language with legislative leaders and the office of the state's top prosecutor. (MICHAEL McANDREWS)

A secretly drafted bill to block release of photos, tapes of 911 calls and death certificates related to the Dec. 14 Newtown elementary school massacre could be acted on in the General Assembly as early as the end of the week, officials said Wednesday.

Family members of victims would have discretion over release of some of the records.

A draft of the bill was released Wednesday afternoon by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office, which has been working behind the scenes in recent weeks on drafting the language with legislative leaders and the office of the state's top prosecutor, Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane.

Word of the planned legislation was kept from the public until Tuesday, when The Courant obtained a copy of an email written by a Kane assistant that said Malloy's legal staff told him a draft of a "special act" would be quickly "forthcoming."

A Courant story about the secret plan to withhold information on the Newtown investigation has sparked intense interest and concern in Connecticut and nationwide — based both on what the bill would do and the way it was put together outside the normal legislative process, without a public hearing.

Lawmakers at first were talking about trying to vote on the bill Wednesday, but they abandoned that idea as criticism mounted. Details still need to be worked out, and the vote could come either this week or next, said Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian.

According to the draft released Wednesday, the restrictions in the bill would apply only to records "compiled in connection with the school shooting that occurred on Dec. 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown" — where 20 first-graders and six women died, and two other women survived gunshot wounds.

Kane said he wanted at least some of the proposed limitations on the release of records to apply to police investigations in general — not just the Newtown case — but his proposal isn't reflected in the draft.

"Our proposal was not limited," Kane said Wednesday.

The bill, which would take effect immediately upon passage, would:

•Allow all government agencies to keep secret from the public any images including photographs, videotapes and digital recordings as well as audio recordings that depict the physical condition of any victim "without the written consent of the victim, or, if the victim is deceased, a member of the victim's immediate family."

•Permit any public agency to remove the name of any minor witness of the school shooting — younger than 18 — from any records.

•Prevent disclosure to the public of any recordings of audio transmissions or recordings of any "call for emergency assistance, including but not limited to an emergency 9-1-1 call." Public agencies, however, would be allowed to sell transcriptions of such recordings to members of the public for 50 cents a page.

Also, no municipal official or employee would be required to make public the death certificate of anyone who died at the school, unless the request is made by a member of the victim's immediate family.

"Immediate family" is defined in the draft of the bill as "a spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling or legal guardian." "Victim" means "any person who suffered a gunshot wound or any other physical injury arising from the discharge of a firearm on the grounds of Sandy Hook Elementary School" on Dec. 14, "but excluding the person who fired such firearm."

Ojakian, the gubernatorial chief of staff, said in an interview: "We have been in touch with most of the families since the Newtown tragedy happened. One of the consistent themes, time and time again, in those personal meetings has been 'please help us protect the memories of our children.' It's been a national sensation with blogs … and conspiracy theorists that have their own websites. … They are trying to grieve the loss of their children. … We are responding to their concerns while respecting the intent of the FOI laws."

He was asked specifically about the proposed ban on release of audio tapes of 911 calls – tapes that are routinely released by police departments in Connecticut and across the country and used by news organizations and citizens to evaluate responses to emergencies by law enforcement personnel.

"It's a unique situation," Ojakian said. "We're trying to balance both sets of concerns and come up with something that doesn't abandon our belief in transparency."

However, a coalition of news and freedom-of-information organizations wrote a letter to Malloy Wednesday, raising concern about shutting out the public.

"We understand the process of gathering information may have the unfortunate and unintended effect of reminding families and friends of the Sandy Hook victims of their terrible loss. All agree that every reasonable step should be taken to minimize such painful reminders, while not depriving our local, state and federal governments — and the people in general — of information needed to assess the tragedy and develop appropriate legislative responses," the letter said.