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Newspaper group: Regulators wrongly charging for public info

December 7, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Public Service Commission is requiring hefty payments for legal reviews before releasing information that should be public record, a newspaper group alleges in a court petition against the agency.

Lee Enterprises filed the petition in District Court in Helena on Dec. 3 documenting two times in which its reporters sought PSC records and were asked for up-front payments, including $31,000 in one case, the Montana State News Bureau reports.

A spokesperson for the PSC said Monday the agency had not yet been served and had no comment.

The petition challenges the costs the PSC said were needed to fulfill the records requests and argues that seeking costs for a legal review of documents prior to their release is not allowed under the Montana Open Records Act.

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The costs have a chilling effect on the public’s constitutional right to examine government documents, the petition states.

The newspaper group is asking District Court Judge Mike Menahan to order the PSC to release the requested documents and for a finding that legal review costs cannot be used as a condition to disclose public documents.

In the first case, a Lee reporter in June asked the PSC for records related to travel invoices, expense reports and reimbursements for the commission and staff after an audit uncovered lax spending practices and found that false documents were created to justify expenses. The audit involved just a sample of expense reports.

The reporter also sought other information based on the audit findings.

The PSC’s chief legal counsel told the reporter in September that the search turned up 25,000 relevant documents and legal staff would need $31,000 to conduct the legal review before the documents could be released. The reporter was given the option to narrow the search in order to reduce the cost, the petition states.

In October, another Lee reporter requested all text messages, email and phone calls made by Commissioner Jennifer Fielder using government resources concerning the treatment of a COVID-19 patient at the hospital in Helena. A legislative counsel investigation found Fielder left a voicemail with the hospital saying the patient — who was being denied treatment with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine — had connections with the state Senate and a lawsuit could be filed “if this doesn’t turn out well.”

The PSC’s attorney told Lee Newspapers that he was working on placing a hold notice on the requested documents and asked for $240 to do so. Lee paid the fee, but then the PSC asked for another $870 to cover the costs of reviewing the documents before any would be disclosed, the petition states.

Fielder told the legislative investigator she made the call on her own time and used no state resources.