November 14, 2007
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 and hope that you will accept my apologies for the delay in response. You asked whether “the information created as a result of mixed-use travel [is] available under FOIL” as referenced in an opinion of the entity formerly known as the State Ethics Commission.
In this regard, as a general matter, 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 (j) of the Law. In my view, one of the grounds for denial is pertinent to an analysis of rights of access to the kinds of records of your interest.
Section 87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and subject to a variety of interpretations, the courts have provided direction through their review of challenges to agencies' denials of access. In brief, it is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public officers and employees are required to be more accountable than others. Further, it has been held that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of their official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, supra; Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)].
In conjunction with the preceding remarks, I direct you to a statement concerning the intent and utility of the Freedom of Information Law, the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, found that:
"The Freedom of Information Law expresses this State's strong commitment to open government and public accountability and imposes a broad standard of disclosure upon the State and its agencies (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 79). The statute, enacted in furtherance of the public's vested and inherent 'right to know', affords all citizens the means to obtain information concerning the day-to-day functioning of 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 and abuse on the part of government officers" (Capital Newspapers v. Burns, supra, 565-566).
Based on the foregoing, I believe that the need to enable the public to make informed choices and provide a mechanism for exposing waste or abuse generally overrides any concerns involving personal privacy in relation to the use of state aircraft. The ability to do so is based on the condition that use of state aircraft for a “State purpose” is “the primary reason for the trip.” Because that is so, I agree with the Commission’s view that the records at issue are accessible to the public, for in my opinion disclosure would result in a permissible rather that an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
I hope that I have been of assistance.