By Alex Wood
I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last two years on three cases I filed with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. The cases were against the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, and demonstrate that you can change governmental practices through this appeals process — but you may have serious tussles along the way.
In the summer of 2012, the New Haven Register ran a story about a woman from the Journal Inquirer‘s circulation area who was upset that she hadn’t received notification of a pardon hearing involving the woman who had stabbed her daughter to death. The JI reprinted the article.
Chris Powell, the JI’s managing editor, noticed a reference in the story to the pardon panel voting behind closed doors, which he knew to be contrary to the Connecticut FOI Act. After he assigned me to work on the story, I noticed other practices inconsistent with the law, including filing meeting minutes in the stacks of the Connecticut State Library rather than on the pardon board’s website.
I began my investigation with quiet diplomacy. I had several conversations with a board staff member over several months. I got nowhere.
So, in November 2012, I requested the minutes of two recent board meetings. To its credit, the board sent them to me. Those minutes, like the ones I had copied at the State Library, documented violations of the open-meeting provisions of the FOI Act.
Because of the FOI Act’s tight deadlines, I hadn’t been in a position to complain about the violations documented by the old minutes. But with the new minutes in hand, I could file a complaint, and I did.
The board tried to justify its closed-door meetings by explaining that its pardon panels needed to discuss confidential documents. So, I requested those documents for a small sample of cases. That request was denied and I filed a second complaint at the FOI Commission.
The board defended both cases with great vigor, citing numerous state and federal laws, all of which I had to research to develop counterarguments. The board took some extreme positions. Under Connecticut’s “criminal erasure law,” when a person receives an “absolute pardon,” all records of his criminal cases are sealed. The board argued that the erasure law prevented it from giving out records even on pardon applications that had been denied. It claimed that the records should remain confidential because the applicant might re-apply and receive an absolute pardon in the future.
The FOI Commission didn’t buy that, or a number of the board’s other arguments. It found that the board had violated the law’s open meeting provisions. Later, in my second case, it ordered the board to release the documents I had requested, although it did permit some information to be redacted.
During one of the hearings on those cases, I found out that the board was directing other criminal justice agencies to erase records of cases in which it had issued pardons with conditions attached. That was clearly contrary to the law, which called for erasure only after an “absolute pardon.” So I requested pardon certificates in a number of those cases. When the request was denied, I filed a third case before the FOI Commission, which agreed with me again.
The first batch of documents I received as a result of the commission’s decisions included the application of a man who had a single misdemeanor on his record. He had punched a woman outside a bar several years ago and now couldn’t get the job he wanted because of his record. His pardon application was denied — despite strong support from a prosecutor — apparently because the victim objected. I thought that case provided an interesting look at the pardon process and I wrote a story about it.
I’m now eagerly awaiting the pardon certificates that have conditions attached. I’m interested to find out whether any of those folks have committed subsequent crimes. And whether my FOI victories will expose in even more stories.
Alex is a reporter at the Journal Inquirer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.