Media and Advocacy Coalition Settles Public Records Lawsuit
Chapel Hill, N.C.- A coalition of eight news media companies and advocacy groups who sued former Governor McCrory and several of his cabinet agencies in 2015 for wide-ranging violations of North Carolina’s Public Records Law have reached a settlement with the State.
In an agreement finalized on August 15, Governor Roy Cooper agreed to enhance public access to government records by interpreting and applying key provisions of the law differently from his predecessor. Among other things, Cooper agreed that his cabinet agencies, unlike McCrory’s, will not charge fees to persons who merely seek to inspect public records.
The State also agreed to provide long-missing records to one party and to reimburse $250,000 in attorney fees incurred by the coalition members, who included The News & Observer; The Charlotte Observer; WRAL and its parent company Capitol Broadcasting Company, Incorporated; The Alamance News; Indy Week; WNCN –Raleigh and WNCT—Greenville; the Southern Environmental Law Center; and Policy Watch, a journalism project of the North Carolina Justice Center.
Mike Tadych, one of the coalition’s attorneys, said “the settlement agreement tacitly acknowledges that Governor McCrory’s Administration repeatedly and systematically violated North Carolina’s Public Records Law by stonewalling and foot dragging in response to Public Records requests or, in many instances, simply ignoring them.” Tadych noted that the lawsuit prompted the release of untold numbers of public records that had been unlawfully withheld, and that the attorney fees that the State agreed to pay, while substantial, are “significantly less than the documented amount that the McCrory administration paid private lawyers for unsuccessfully defending the case.”
Southern Environmental Law Center staff attorney Kym Hunter offered, “We appreciate the recognition that the public records and public information compiled by North Carolina’s government are first, and foremost, the property of the people.” Hunter added, “The Public Records Law provides access to all in a non-partisan fashion and as promptly as possible. It’s unfortunate we had to sue to gain access to records where there was no dispute that they were public.”
Carlene McNulty, Deputy Director for Litigation at the North Carolina Justice Center, welcomed resolution of the matter remarking, “Governor McCrory campaigned, in part, on a transparency platform however, when those who had challenged his policies and practices or were deemed by the McCrory Administration to be hostile to him tried to obtain public records from his administration, they were often ignored, put off indefinitely or told they would have to pay big money upfront before those agencies would even begin looking for the records or to otherwise see them.” McNulty continued, “When those practices were challenged in court, the McCrory Administration then fought each and every attempt we made to find out what exactly was happening and why. One can’t help but see some irony in the McCrory Administration’s fight against our desire to take testimony from four of its “public information” officers. It underscored the problem we were having obtaining records from the McCrory Administration.”
About the Southern Environmental Law Center:
The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (Charlottesville, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC; Birmingham, AL; Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; and Richmond, VA), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect the South’s natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org