We tried being nice. We tried nagging and pleading, cajoling and shaming. We left voice messages and emails. In return, we were stonewalled, misled and ignored for 16 months—until our attorney paid a cordial visit to the State Capitol building—to get just six months' worth of Gov. Pat McCrory's travel records. Even then, parts of the documents were redacted without explanation. (What was so interesting in Tampa, governor?) And when we repeatedly asked for clarification ... crickets.
It turns out the INDY was not alone in asking the McCrory administration and various state agencies for public documents, only for those requests to be sucked into a black hole—of incompetence, inattention or obfuscation, we don't know.
What we do know is that now a coalition of six media outlets and two nonprofits has sued McCrory and the heads of eight state agencies, alleging they, as custodians of state documents, have violated North Carolina's Public Records Act.
The administration's actions, the lawsuit alleges, "are the consequence of concerted policies and practices adopted and followed by the defendants for the purposes of avoiding or circumventing the public records law and discouraging or intimidating public records requestors."
This is not a minor matter. The Public Records Act is a fundamental tenet of democracy. It is a compact between the public and the government to ensure transparency and accountability in the highest reaches of power. Government records—with a few exceptions, such as those related to keeping your tax records confidential—are the property of not just of the media, but also of the people. Your tax dollars fund the government, and in return, you have a legal right to know the government is doing with those dollars.
Yes, a legal right: The Public Records Act is not just a good idea; it's the law. And McCrory is attacking the media for asking his administration to comply with it.
Shortly after the coalition's attorneys filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court last week, McCrory spokesman Rick Martinez, who, before joining the governor's public relations cabal, hosted a conservative radio program on WPTF, issued a statement calling the suit the work of "the liberal media" and advocacy groups.
Oh, that old trope. If we had a dime for every time the media has been called liberal, we could afford the $700 the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources wants to charge us for our most recent records request. And the Alamance News is liberal? Hardly. Pravda it's not.
McCrory's retort contained another troubling double entendre. He contended that his administration is a "champion of transparency and fair and legitimate news gathering."
What is fair and legitimate news gathering to McCrory? Warm and fuzzy stories about his rescue dog? Yes, governor, you have a lot of power, but it doesn't include defining what news qualifies as "fair" and "legitimate."
His reaction is merely red meat for the right-wing base, as the McCrory administration tries to discredit the media as diabolical squanderers of tax money: "Now this lawsuit will require us to hire more lawyers at taxpayers' expense to respond to this baseless and ridiculous lawsuit," the statement read.
(About those tax dollars, governor: We'd still like to know if you, presumably on the public dime, flew to Tampa to ride the Falcon's Fury at Busch Gardens or to take in a Rays' game—or something else.)
Besides, state government doesn't have to hire more lawyers; it has a lawyer, Attorney General Roy Cooper. And before the state uses the media lawsuit to justify a "budgetary crisis," remember that at this very moment in Winston-Salem, a private attorney, Republican Thomas Farr, is in federal court defending North Carolina's discriminatory voting laws.
Why isn't Cooper in Winston-Salem to plead the state's case for disenfranchising black people? Because, dissatisfied with Cooper's legal representation on matters such as same-sex marriage and voting rights, GOP legislators passed a law in 2013 allowing the General Assembly leadership to hire outside counsel using taxpayer money.
How much? Well, you'll have to file an open records request to find out.
From a purely fiscal standpoint, if these requests are really so onerous, as McCrory implies, hiring more staff to fill them is likely cheaper in the long run than paying defense attorneys. That's simple budgeting. Geez-us, we miss Art Pope.
The same afternoon that the media lawsuit was filed, Ricky Diaz of the N.C. GOP sent a press release reminding the Fourth Estate that Roy Cooper himself has been delinquent in filling the party's records requests. In March (only four months ago—hell, we've waited that long for McCrory's press office to call us back) the Republican Party asked Cooper for 14 years' worth of documents. Meanwhile, in his statement, McCrory called the media's requests "overbroad."
While in state government, Diaz himself had a reputation as an obfuscator. He was an $85,000-a-year, 24-year-old press aide to McCrory before being moved to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as press secretary under Aldona Wos, a defendant in the lawsuit. In 2014, Diaz resigned.
At the time, ABC11 (the station is not part of the suit) quoted Chris Fitzsimon of N.C. Policy Watch, one of our co-plaintiffs, as saying DHHS has been "far less than forthcoming with public records, public information and access." Investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska was quoted as saying, "I've never had a phone call returned ever by [Diaz]."
In May, McCrory, although he personally opposes same-sex marriage, explained his veto of the magistrate marriage-exemption bill: "We are a nation and a state of laws."
That is true, governor. Now the INDY has a very simple request of you and every state agency: Follow the law.