By Fran Silverman
Consumer complaints filed against businesses can provide valuable information for both journalists and customers on how a company operates and treats its patrons. But not all New England states make this information filed with state consumer protection agencies readily available, according to a recently released report by Connecticut-based ad watchdog truthinadvertising.org, or TINA.org.
One state, Rhode Island, considers consumer complaints filed with the Attorney General’s Office exempt from public disclosure. Rhode Island is one of just six states nationwide that won’t disclose any information about consumer complaints received by key consumer protection agencies such as the Attorney General’s Office. It is also the only New England state that keeps these records from public view.
Rhode Island’s approach under its Access to Public Records Act runs completely counter to another New England state, New Hampshire, which publishes an online searchable database of consumer complaint information filed with state officials. Rhode Island’s stance on consumer complaints is also in direct opposition to federal consumer protection agencies, such as the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which posts the content of consumer complaints it has received online for easy access. The Federal Trade Commission will provide complaints it has received against a particular business — or industry — upon an FOI request that can be easily filed online.
The other New England states, the study found, quickly responded to FOIA requests regarding access to copies of consumer complaints, putting them in TINA.org’s list of top 20 best states in the country regarding disclosing these records. Connecticut, in fact, responded within the same day to a FOI request filed by TINA.org. Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont all responded within the time allotted by their state’s open records laws. (Nationwide, however, more than 20 percent of states failed to meet the deadlines for response times set by their own public records laws.)
While 88 percent of states release at least some information about complaints — ranging from the full content of the complaint to just citing the number of complaints received about a business — Rhode Island is an outlier.
In its response to TINA.org’s Access to Public Records Act request, Rhode Island’s Attorney General’s Office cited General Laws 38-2-2(4)(P), which states that “all investigatory records of public bodies…” shall not be deemed public. In citing that law, Rhode Island takes a leap that consumer complaints are investigatory records, even if the attorney general has taken no other action on a complaint than just keeping it on file.
This response is troubling. States that don’t allow public access to complaints are not only keeping vital information from consumers that could forewarn them about potential troublesome — if not outright fraudulent — business practices, but are also severely limiting the public’s ability to monitor whether government officials are doing enough to protect them from unscrupulous enterprises.
One argument for keeping these records from public view is that it’s rare that a business will not have some unsatisfied customers. That is indeed true and there could be complaints that aren’t really substantive. But certainly, readers — whether consumers, journalists or other businesses — can responsibly evaluate complaints, separating inconsequential peccadillos from weighty issues.
More so, if these complaints are piling up but the state hasn’t taken action, consumers should know that too and ask why.
Rhode Island lawmakers should revamp the state’s APRA and specifically classify consumer complaints as public records, and all the New England states should follow CFPB’s lead.
After all, as James Madison said: “The diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”
Fran is editor of truthinadvertising.org, a Connecticut-based non-profit consumer advocacy website. She can be emailed at email@example.com.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.