Legislative Proposals Dim The Lights On Freedom Of Information

A bill aimed at "decreasing recidivism" by offenders would bar the general public from access to records and hearings at the Board of Pardons and Paroles, concerning applications for pardons.

"Confidentiality is critical to the pardons process," Alexis Smith, deputy director of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association said in legislative testimony. "The board encourages applicants to be forthcoming in giving details about their efforts to rehabilitate. Such details may include information about substance abuse recovery, mental health treatment and other sensitive information."

But the FOI commission argued that "this sweeping confidentiality provision, unlimited in both scope and time, would permit the [board of pardons] to keep secret all information upon which its decisions to pardon applicants are based. This would be a catastrophic blow to government transparency. … A member of the public has the right to know for him or herself, through access to government records, that the decision-making process with respect to the granting of all pardons is fair, unbiased and free from influence."

News Not All Bad

There's some good news on the freedom-of-information front this year.

Brandi, the elections enforcement agency director, said he's encouraged by the state House of Representative's vote to approve a "pilot program" under which campaign finance reports from 20 of Connecticut's 169 cities and towns would be available on his agency's website starting in 2015. The website already contains searchable data on state campaigns, political action committees and political parties.

Meanwhile, Murphy said she is encouraged by state Comptroller Kevin Lembo's efforts to make information accessible to the public.

Lembo's office maintains a myriad of state financial information such as payroll, retirement benefits, and payment of state bills for contracts and other expenses. Lembo has established his own website, http://www.osc.ct.gov/openCT, with searchable information on state finances.

But he's also proposed "An Act Concerning Transparency In Economic Assistance Programs," which would create a searchable online database for the public to view the often-controversial economic development benefits that the state grants to businesses – such as grants, loans and tax breaks.

As Lembo originally proposed the bill, the online database would have included the name and location of each business receiving state economic aid; its terms, purpose, and statutory authority; and an analysis of the direct and indirect effect of the aid on state taxes.

The bill has been opposed by the business community – including the Connecticut Business and Industry Association – and by Malloy administration officials including budget chief Ben Barnes and economic development commissioner Catherine Smith, who have questioned its cost.

Lembo said after negotiations with the CBIA and Malloy's people, the database would not include the economic assistance information by company names, but only by sectors in the business community. The bill is now in the legislature's commerce committee. Lembo said "I'll kill my own bill" rather than let it get too watered down in further negotiations to pass it.

The database would cost the state about $50,000, he said, adding: "When we think about the millions and in some cases billions of dollars that are involved in these transactions, $50,000 seems like a small price to pay so that lawmakers have good information on which to make decisions" and the public can learn where its taxes are going.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter at @jonlender.

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