Memo shows NYC mayoral lawyers screening sensitive records

AP News
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Posted: Aug 19, 2015 2:47 PM
Memo shows NYC mayoral lawyers screening sensitive records

NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that he's not micromanaging his image by having his lawyers review all public information requests that could "reflect directly on the mayor."

The mayor also said he didn't know who issued a May 5 email obtained by The Associated Press that instructed attorneys at city agencies to forward a wide range of records, including potentially sensitive or controversial documents, to his lawyers.

That broad mandate to review public information could give de Blasio's office control over virtually all newsworthy requests from journalists, watchdog groups or members of the public made under the Freedom of Information Law.

"What we're trying to do is have a single standard to make sure that agencies won't unnecessarily remove information that could be provided publicly and don't act too slowly to respond to the request," de Blasio said on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." ''We obviously believe in the Freedom of Information Law and we want it applied consistently and we don't want a situation in which some agencies are taking it seriously and some agencies are not."

Although the ramifications of the policy are not yet clear, transparency advocates fear such control could lead to prolonged delays in responding to records requests, a criticism both President Barack Obama and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced when they instituted similar policies.

De Blasio promised to run the most transparent administration in city history and in his previous job as public advocate, he called for reforms to the public records process to make it more transparent.

John Kaehny, director of the nonprofit Reinvent Albany and a co-chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group, said a concern with the policy would be "if City Hall orders the delay or partial release or in any way impedes anything but a full and robust response."

De Blasio administration officials say it's legal for government officials to consult on records requests before releasing public information. And a spokeswoman noted the mayor's lawyers have responded to more than 500 of 700 public information requests since de Blasio took office 19 months ago.

But Ishanee Parikh wouldn't say what prompted the order, how many requests have been forwarded to City Hall since it was issued and what those requests were for.

The directive is just the latest in a series of efforts to control access and information that started the first day de Blasio took office — when the Democrat initially barred media from attending his midnight swearing-in ceremony. In his first five months in office, more than 20 percent of the mayor's listed public events were closed to the media, the AP found. And earlier this year, the New York Press Club denounced his practice of refusing to answer "off topic" questions during news conferences and for herding protesters into roped-off "free-speech zones."

Parts of his schedule are now posted online.

In the May 5 email sent to nearly 60 city lawyers who handle public records requests, City Hall attorney Bess Chiu ordered that a range of documents, including those that could "reflect directly on the mayor," be forwarded to the mayor's lawyers for review two weeks before they are sent to whoever asked for them.

It also asks for requests that "due to their level of attention, sensitivity or controversy could result in questions for City Hall," as well as requests that appear to have been made of multiple agencies and requests for so-called City Hall "equities" — that is, emails and memos to, from or about City Hall staff.

Experts say previous administrations, including that of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, likely funneled potentially embarrassing requests through the mayor's office for review as an informal policy.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government and a leading expert on the state's freedom of information law, said that it's legal for government officials to consult on disclosures as long as it doesn't result in prolonged delays.

"This kind of practice, to my mind, makes it unnecessarily difficult for members of the public to get information that should be made available quickly and easily," he said of the memo.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this story.