- Associated Press - Friday, July 22, 2016

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - The Maryland Public Information Act prohibits the state comptroller from listing abandoned property in order of its value, as that information would disclose personal financial information regarding their owners, Maryland’s top court has unanimously ruled.

The Court of Appeals’ decision was a defeat for Henry Immanuel, who seeks a listing from most-valuable to least-valuable properties - such as unclaimed stocks, bonds and savings accounts - to assist him in his business of helping reunite people with their lost goods. Immanuel had argued that the public information act endorses the broad release of government documents, but the high court ruled the act’s promise of transparency is not absolute, as the law also protects the personal privacy of those named in the official papers.

“While the public policy of the MPIA favors disclosure, the purpose of the act reveals a legislative goal other than complete carte blanche, unrestricted disclosure of all public records,” Judge Irma Raker wrote for the Court of Appeals in its decision filed last week.

“The MPIA is a statutory mechanism for revealing matters of governance . but it should not reveal information from beyond where state activity ends and private activity begins, even if the government has acquired records on those private individual matters,” added Raker, a retired judge specially assigned to participate in the case. “Information about the value of individual accounts, even incremental information deduced from an ordered list, does not offer the citizen a better understanding of how the government of the State of Maryland is functioning or what it is up to.”

The high court said the act expressly excludes from disclosure “information about the finances of an individual, including assets, income, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or activities or creditworthiness.”

An ordered list of abandoned property “would reveal the relative value of such claims in comparison with other claims in the comptroller’s possession, which would constitute disclosure of individual financial information,” Raker wrote, quoting from the intermediate Court of Special Appeals’ decision in the case last year.

Maryland law requires the comptroller to publish in local newspapers the names and last known addresses of people whose abandoned property of at least $100 has come into the comptroller’s possession. The comptroller does not disclose what the property is except to the named person when it is claimed.

Immanuel, a “tracer” in the lingo of his trade, locates owners of the unclaimed property and for a fee assists them in claiming it. A listing of the property by its value helps tracers, such as Immanuel, prioritize their efforts.

But Comptroller Peter Franchot, citing the Abandoned Property Act and the public information act’s privacy exception, had rejected Immanuel’s request for an ordered list under the public-information law.

Franchot’s rejection was affirmed by the Wicomico County Circuit Court and the intermediate Court of Special Appeals last year, prompting Immanuel’s unsuccessful appeal to the high court.

Alan Brody, a spokesman for Franchot, said the comptroller is “pleased that the position of his office was upheld by the court.”

Immanuel’s attorney, Deborah A.M. Ullmann of Pocomoke City, declined to comment on the court’s ruling.


Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, https://www.thedailyrecord.com

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