February 14, 2006
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your inquiry concerning a situation in which a former superintendent of a school district has been accused of "misusing public funds", and his employment contract has been "taken by the District Attorney’s office, who is now investigating this individual." Consequently, the District has denied your client’s request for the contract. You have asked whether the District is required "to get a copy from the DA’s office back" or whether there may be some other remedy.
In this regard, first, it is possible if not likely that the District maintains a copy of the contract. If that is so, the copy must, in my opinion, be made available, for none of the grounds for denying access would be applicable. There is nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that would require the District to obtain a record that it does not possess. I note that when an agency indicates that it does not maintain or cannot locate a record, an applicant for the record may seek a certification to that effect. Section 89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law provides in part that, in such a situation, on request, an agency "shall certify that it does not have possession of such record or that such record cannot be found after diligent search." If you consider it worthwhile to do so, you could seek such a certification.
Second, the office of a district attorney is clearly an "agency" required to comply with the Freedom of Information Law [see definition of "agency", §86(3)], and a request for the contract could be made to the Office of the Albany County District Attorney. As you are likely aware, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.
The fact that a contract has been sent to the District Attorney does not alter the nature or character of the contract, and I believe that the District Attorney would be obliged to disclose the contract on request. One of the exceptions to rights of access, §87(2)(e), states that an agency may withhold records that:
"are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would:
i. interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings;
ii. deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication;
iii. identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation; or
iv. reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures."
To characterize the contract between the District and its former superintendent as having been compiled for law enforcement purposes, even though it may be used in or pertinent to an investigation, would be inconsistent with both the language and the judicial interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law. The Court of Appeals has held on several occasions that the exceptions to rights of access appearing in §87(2) "are to be narrowly construed to provide maximum access, and the agency seeking to prevent disclosure carries the burden of demonstrating that the requested material falls squarely within a FOIL exemption be articulating a particularized and specific justification for denying access" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 566 (1986); see also, M. Farbman & Sons v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984); Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY 2d 567, 571 (1979)]. Based upon the thrust of those decisions, §87(2)(e) should be construed narrowly in order to foster access. Further, there is case law that illustrates why §87(2)(e) should be construed narrowly, and why a broad construction of that provision would give rise to an anomalous result. Specifically, in King v. Dillon (Supreme Court, Nassau County, December 19, 1984), the District Attorney was engaged in an investigation of the petitioner, who had served as a village clerk. In conjunction with the investigation, the District Attorney obtained minutes of meetings of the village board of trustees. Those minutes, which were prepared by the petitioner, were requested from the District Attorney. In granting access to the minutes, the decision indicated that "the party resisting disclosure has the burden of proof in establishing entitlement to the exemption," and the judge wrote that he:
"must note in the first instance that the records sought were not compiled for law enforcement purposes (P.O.L. 87e). Minutes of Village Board meetings serve a different function...These were public records, ostensibly prepared by the petitioner, so there can be little question of the disclosure of confidential material."
Often records prepared in the ordinary course of business, which might already have been disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law, become relevant to or used in a law enforcement investigation or perhaps in litigation. In my view, when that occurs, the records would not be transformed into records compiled for law enforcement purposes. If they would have been available prior to their use in a law enforcement context, I believe that they would remain available, notwithstanding their use in that context for a purpose inconsistent with the reason for which they were prepared.
From my perspective, the record that your client requested, by its nature, indicates that the exception concerning records "compiled for law enforcement purposes" is inapplicable. To contend that records which were generated for purposes wholly unrelated to any law enforcement investigation may now be withheld due to their use in an investigation would, in my opinion, be unreasonable and tend to subvert the purposes of the Freedom of Information Law. In support of this view, I again point to the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals in Capital Newspapers, supra. In its discussion of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law, the court found that the statute:
"affords all citizens the means to obtain information concerning the day-to-day functioning of the state and local government thus providing the electorate with sufficient information to 'make intelligent, informed choices with respect to both the direction and scope of governmental activities' and with an effective tool for exposing waste, negligence or abuse on the part of government officers" (id. at 566).
In short, whether the contract is maintained by the District or the Office of the District Attorney, I believe that it must be disclosed.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
cc: Records Access Officer, Voorheesville Central School District
Records Access Officer, Office of the Albany County District Attorney