Dannel P. Malloy came into office as governor two years ago saying he's committed to "open and transparent" government, but recent events have put that assertion in question.
"Transparent" and "transparency" are the words that leaders use these days to assure citizens that they'll be well informed about government operations and decision-making, and that they'll have ready access to government records.
"Making government more user-friendly, efficient and transparent" was a key goal listed by Malloy's budget chief in a report last fall, for example.
But then came last Tuesday. That's when The Courant revealed that the staffs of Malloy and top state prosecutor Kevin Kane had been working secretly for weeks with legislative leaders to draft a bill to block public disclosure of some investigative records concerning the Dec. 14 Newtown massacre. Documents to be withheld include audio tapes of 911 emergency calls, which are routinely released by police departments throughout the country.
That's not something that "a transparency governor" should support, said Jim Smith, who spent 40 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and now heads the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. Smith said it's only Malloy's latest affront to "transparency."
"He's no Ella Grasso," Smith said Thursday, referring to the governor who got the legislature to create the state Freedom of Information Commission in 1975, after the Watergate scandal. "Ella Grasso gave us the [FOI] commission and she was a true champion of the people's right to know. Dan Malloy is trying to tear apart the Freedom of Information Commission."
Smith said those are his own views, not the official stance of the council he heads. But other FOI advocates didn't disagree.
"I haven't seen any signs" that Malloy is especially "transparent," said Mitchell Pearlman, who retired in 2005 after three decades as the first director of the FOI Commission and now "reads the newspapers and follows these issues on a day-to-day basis."
Their views were echoed in newspaper editorials, which said it's wrong to pass legislation hurting the public's right to know because of one crime, however horrific. Police never release grisly crime-scene photos anyway, FOI advocates said, and when they're entered as evidence in criminal trials, news organizations don't publish them. Also, 911 tapes are essential to citizens and reporters so they can evaluate police response to emergencies, they said.
Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, defended the proposed legislation – saying its language is confined to records of the Newtown shootings, and wouldn't extend to other cases. But others said that the bill would inevitably draw demands from future victims for the same protections; the state victim advocate said it would be unfair not to extend the bill's provisions to the little-noticed victims of urban crime.
Ojakian said the governor is responding, through the bill, to the pleas of Newtown families for privacy and the ability to grieve in peace. "We would not be having this conversation if 20 children weren't murdered in a school," Ojakian told a reporter.
Malloy addressed the criticism Friday when he met with reporters at a public appearance in East Hartford. Noting that the bill doesn't go beyond Newtown and Dec. 14, he said: "There's been a lot of wacky coverage in the blog world … I'm going to stand with the parents. I want to protect them. I don't think these pictures should be released, and I'm with them."
Does Malloy Believe?
But others questioned how strongly Malloy believes in the transparency he's espoused.
Smith, the veteran journalist who heads the council on FOI, pointed at other actions – including the governor's consolidation in 2011 of the FOI commission with other previously autonomous government watchdog agencies that oversee elections and officials' ethics.
Smith also cited the governor's attempt this year to put the independent legal and investigative staffs of the watchdog agencies under supervision of a gubernatorial appointee. Malloy's move apparently has been foiled by legislators – who, despite their own lackluster "transparency" credentials, now look like the saviors of FOI by comparison.
And by week's end the criticism rose to a political level, when state Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola on Friday called Malloy a "foe of FOI."
Labriola suggested that the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, which had its awards dinner Thursday night, name Malloy as the "first recipient of the "Foe of the FOI" award" in recognition of his "unrelenting and systematic attack on Connecticut's freedom of information laws."
"He is always talking about his commitment to transparency," Labriola said, "but his record shows that he has actually done more to undermine our [FOI] laws than any state official in recent memory."
Labriola hammered Malloy for having his staff work secretly on the Newtown bill – and for the actions Smith mentioned with regard to the FOI Commission and other watchdog agencies. He added that Malloy has been grudging and slow about releasing information on economic development deals.