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Idaho Press Club sues Lt. Gov. McGeachin over public records

July 19, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this May 19, 2021, file photo, Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin speaks at a rally on the Statehouse steps in Boise, Idaho. Republican Idaho Lt. Gov. McGeachin says state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Brad Little are failing citizens by not taking action to prevent employers from requiring employees get the COVID-19 vaccine. McGeachin at a news conference Thursday, July 15, 2021, repeated her request from last week to reconvene the Legislature. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 19, 2021, file photo, Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin speaks at a rally on the Statehouse steps in Boise, Idaho. Republican Idaho Lt. Gov. McGeachin says state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Brad Little are failing citizens by not taking action to prevent employers from requiring employees get the COVID-19 vaccine. McGeachin at a news conference Thursday, July 15, 2021, repeated her request from last week to reconvene the Legislature. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Press Club is suing Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin after several journalists said they were wrongly denied access to public records.

The statewide press association filed the lawsuit in 4th District Court on Monday, asking a judge to order McGeachin to fully release the records about her Education Task Force and comply with the timelines set under the state’s Public Records Act.

The Idaho Press Club also wants McGeachin to pay for the club’s legal fees and pay penalties for having improperly denied the records requests.

McGeachin did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Idaho’s Public Records Act protects residents’ right to monitor state and local officials and agencies by providing access to government records. The law generally holds that government records are presumed to be open to the public, though it also allows some records to be kept confidential, like those that would interfere with active law enforcement investigations.

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According to the lawsuit, journalists Audrey Dutton and Clark Corbin with the Idaho Capital Sun, Blake Jones with Idaho Education News and Hayat Norimine with the Idaho Statesman all filed separate public records requests with McGeachin’s office seeking records about her Education Task Force. McGeachin announced that she was creating the task force in April to “examine indoctrination in Idaho education and to protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”

In her request, Dutton asked for a spreadsheet showing the feedback McGeachin had received from the public on her task force.

McGeachin’s chief of staff, Jordan Watters first told Dutton that some of the information was exempt from disclosure and later denied that Dutton had asked for some of the information at all, according to the lawsuit. Dutton was told that she would have to pay more than $500 to get the information and that it would take longer than allowed under the public records law.

The law allows government entities to charge people seeking information for some of the costs of filling requests.

McGeachin later wrote a Facebook post criticizing Dutton’s public records request and suggesting that the news outlet would somehow use the information to attack residents.

“Not only are they requesting the comments, but they are also demanding the names and email addresses of those who made the comments,” McGeachin wrote in the post. “Why does the media want YOUR personal information? Do they plan to release it and encourage employers and government agencies to retaliate against Idahoans who have expressed concerns about Idaho’s education system?”

Jones’ request was similar, and he also was told it would cost $560 for redactions — though the redaction work was identical to the work the office said was necessary for Dutton’s request.

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Norimine sought copies of the task force feedback provided via an online form. Norimine was told the names and emails of those who provided comments would be redacted and that it would cost $1,540 to fill the request.

By this time, McGeachin’s office had hired a private law firm to deal with the public record requests. Corbin filed a request seeking a copy of the agreement between the lieutenant governor and Boyles Law as well as any bills or invoices. McGeachin’s office also denied that request, saying it was exempt under attorney-client privilege and executive privilege rules.

“By denying and obstructing the access of the press to their public records, the Lieutenant Governor and her agents are thwarting the very purpose of the Idaho Public Records Act: to provide an open and transparent government,” the Idaho Press Club’s attorney, Wendy Olson, wrote in the lawsuit.

Olson said the exemptions that McGeachin’s office used to deny the requests don’t apply and that her response to the journalists was “frivolous and in bad faith.”

The Idaho Press Club wants a judge to order McGeachin to turn over the documents. If the judge maintains they are exempt from disclosure, the organization wants the judge review them privately to see if the exemptions are appropriate.