Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin violated Idaho’s public records law when she refused to release online “feedback forms” sent to her education task force, a district judge ruled Thursday.
Judge Steven Hippler ordered the release of the forms in full. He also ordered McGeachin to pay legal fees to the Idaho Press Club — which brought the lawsuit on behalf of several news outlets, including Idaho Education News — and ordered McGeachin to pay a $750 fine for “bad faith” violations of the public records law.
“It appears to the court that (McGeachin) would stop at nothing, no matter how misguided, to shield public records from the public,” Hippler wrote, in a sharply worded 27-page ruling. “The disclosure of public records is prescribed by law, and fear mongering has no place in the calculus.”
At issue were several public records requests. Idaho Education News, the Idaho Statesman and the Idaho Capital Sun all sought unedited responses to the task force feedback form. McGeachin’s office has refused to release the unedited forms — and, at one point, attempted to charge Idaho Capital Sun $560 for the forms, with respondents’ names and email addresses blacked out.
McGeachin has maintained that the full release of the public records compromises the privacy of her constituents. In his ruling, Hippler chastised McGeachin’s attempts to “shame the media,” and said she employed frivolous and “remarkably baseless” legal arguments in her defense.
Hippler sided with McGeachin on only one front. He said the lieutenant governor did not have to fully release an agreement with her outside counsel, citing attorney-client privilege. However, Hippler ordered McGeachin to disclose her legal fees. Idaho Capital Sun submitted a separate records request for McGeachin’s legal agreement, including an accounting of fees.
The ruling came down as McGeachin’s task force was holding its fourth and final meeting — taking public testimony for the first time, and voting on a series of broad recommendations.
McGeachin briefly left the meeting Thursday during the public comment period, and then issued a response to the ruling. In it, she criticized Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office for abandoning her case, forcing her to seek outside counsel. She again criticized the media.
“History shows that the media today often acts as a chilling force to intimidate and silence those who think and speak outside of the approved borders of public opinion,” she said. “It is for this reason that Idaho must take legislative action to shield the personal data of Idahoans when they are communicating with their elected officials.”
Public records law already exempts “personally identifying information” in correspondence to or from a legislator. In fact, McGeachin cited that exemption in her attempt to block the release of task force records — since Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, is the task force’s co-chair. Hippler rejected this argument, saying feedback to the task force is not the same as correspondence with a lawmaker.
Here, in full, is McGeachin’s statement.
(More coverage: Click here for stories from the Idaho Statesman and the Idaho Press.)