A Weber State University physics professor has won his long battle of getting records from the state attorney general’s office.
Physics Professor Daniel Schroeder sought documents from an investigation into development company Envision Utah and former Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey. The attorney general’s office had denied Schroeder some of the documents he requested, and Schroeder sued in 2011 under Utah’s open records law.
The Utah Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Schroeder on Aug. 25.
Envision Utah was founded by Mayor Godfrey in order to promote economic development in Ogden.
Schroeder estimated that the company funneled more than $20,000 through a shell organization known as Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate to fund the campaigns of Godfrey and his political allies. The attorney general announced in 2011 the case had been closed and no criminal charges would be filed.
The next day Schroeder filed an open records request for all documents related to the investigation. The attorney general turned over some documents, but Schroeder continued to fight for records that had been withheld.
“Open records laws are only useful to the extent that people are willing to fight for them,” Schroeder said. He added that sometimes the government will deny an open record request, hoping the person will just go away. While he teaches at WSU, Schroeder said he took this fight on his own time and not in any official capacity with WSU.
Attorney Jeff Hunt, who represented Schroeder, called the Supreme Court ruling “a big win for open records.”
“Schroeder showed that any citizen can use the power of the law to open windows to what government is doing or is not doing,” said Hunt, who took the case at his own risk. Hunt said, beyond the open records laws implications, he was impressed with Schroeder.
“We saw his preservation and his passion. He argued in front of the state records board, by himself, and in front of the district court by himself as well,” Hunt said.
Schroeder, who has taught physics at WSU since 1993, said his scientific background makes him curious, and that curiosity drove him to seek the records. The tenacity he gained whiled getting his doctorate degree is what gave him the strength to keep fighting, he said.
Three documents were released by the court: Envision Ogden’s bank records, a Quicken Summary and a Post -it that contained hand-written notes.
The attorney general’s office argued that bank records were protected by a state right against search and seizure and the Quicken summary and the Post-it note were classified as “work-product” which would exempt it from Utah’s open records law.
The court rejected the argument that the state constitution provides a free-standing right to privacy of bank records because the the attorney general had obtained the records with a valid subpoena. The court ruled that the Quicken summary and Post-it note, were properly classified as work product, but the public’s right to know outweighed the state interest of protecting the records.
“The state terminated its investigation years ago, so the interests favoring protection are not as compelling as those favoring disclosure,” Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote in the decision.
This case will set an important precedent for open records requests in future, Joel Campbell, associate professor of journalism at Brigham Young University, said. The ruling now requires each specific interest to be weighed to determine whether records should be opened rather than the government being able to block access due to general policy interests.
“Now if I get a denial I can ask ‘What specific interests are you protecting?,'” Campbell said. “The government entity will have to do a lot more research when they issue a denial.”
He also praised Schroeder for taking this fight on.
“He’s a hero in my book.” Campbell said.
Schroeder’s attorneys will meet with the attorney general’s counsel and work out a plan on when and how the records will be released and what will be redacted.
The Utah Office of the Attorney General issued a statement saying the office was looking at the ruling, which held that even though two of the documents were properly classified as private, they should be released because of the passage of time.
“That holding could have broad implications respecting the way in which the office conducts business and represents its client agencies,” spokeswoman Bridget Romano said in the statement.