On September 9th, Jack Cashman, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, called me to apologize for requiring that the Center pay $36,000 to see emails of the commission’s former chairman.
It was a surprising and gratifying end to a months-long conflict with the state over the emails, which under Maine law are public documents.
On April 21, the Center had published my in-depth story in a dozen daily and weekly newspapers across Maine about former PUC chairman Kurt Adams leaving his state job to take a top position with the private wind energy firm, First Wind. My research found that Adams had taken the equivalent of stock options from First Wind while he was still at the PUC.
Most of my research for that story had been conducted using Securities and Exchange Commission filings. To advance the story, I wanted to know what Adams’ interactions had been with the wind power industry while he served at the PUC, as well as what communications had been sent between Gov. John Baldacci, a prominent promoter of wind power, and Adams.
So right after my first story was published, we filed a Freedom of Access Act, or FOAA, request with the PUC for copies of communications between Adams and the governor, as well as between Adams and representatives of the wind power industry between 2005 and 2008. The Freedom of Access Act is one of the most important tools we have here at the Center – by getting the documents that detail how state officials have acted, we can give readers the in-depth story about how government works.
The PUC’s response to our FOAA request: Pay us $10,000 and we’ll give you the emails you want. The PUC’s explanation: The emails were kept in an electronic storehouse where retrieving them would be time-consuming and expensive. (The PUC also stated that there was no written correspondence between Adams and Baldacci – an assertion we found astonishing.)
The Center protested the cost, and asked for a waiver of the charges under a provision of FOAA that allows state officials to waive the fee if the dissemination of the information is in the public interest.
The PUC’s response to our response and request for a waiver: Forget the $10,000 we said it would cost you to get the emails. We’ve recalculated and it’s actually going to cost you $36,000, and we won’t waive the cost.
At that point, we did what most reporters would do with a story like this: We wrote about it.
Our story was published in newspapers across the state, and it was written about by sources outside of the state, too. Jeff Inglis at the Portland Phoenix wrote his own story about the problem, in which he determined that the state’s storage of emails and other electronic documents in a facility called “Iron Mountain” meant that all similar requests for public access to historic documents would face the same response: It’s time-consuming and expensive to get the material out of Iron Mountain.
As Inglis reported, what we stumbled onto here in Maine is a problem being faced by state governments across the country — as well as anyone with an interest in history and the workings of government. If we lock up our public documents in an inaccessible cyber vault where only the rich can pay to get them, than history is lost to us.
Inglis’ story wasn’t the end of the publicity: Newspapers in Maine weighed in with editorials encouraging the state to hand over the documents without charge and fix the email storage system that required such expensive searches for public documents. Finally, WABI reporter Adrienne Bennett filed her own FOAA request for the documents, to see whether she’d get the same response we did.
After all that, the PUC finally revisited our FOAA request, and that’s when we got the phone call from Chairman Cashman. He followed the phone call with a letter in which he wrote, “I am writing this cover letter to apologize on behalf of the PUC for the confusion and misinformation that was disseminated following the original request on April 23, 2010.”
Cashman explained that a review of the state’s computer system showed that the actual cost of retrieving the emails was $160 — 16 hours work at $10 per hour. That’s because it turns out they weren’t just stored in “Iron Mountain.” It turns out, Cashman wrote, that the emails were still on the PUC server – an oversight called a “critical error” by a technology official who was asked by Cashman to review our request.
And Cashman wrote that he was waiving even the $160 cost and providing the requested emails to the Center at no charge “because of the history of this issue.”
We’ve reviewed the Adams emails — and there’s nothing there that would make a story. But in the end, the denial of access to the public documents ended up generating a different story than we anticipated – one about how much work it can take to get the documents to which the public is entitled under law.
We’ll be following up on that one.