- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York lawmakers are largely exempt from the open records law they themselves wrote, something Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo says it’s time to change.

As part of national Sunshine Week, annual celebration of access to public information, The Associated Press filed freedom of information requests with the Legislature’s top four leaders, asking them to disclose their schedules and emails during the time period of Feb. 1 to Feb. 7.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly declined to disclose their schedules and emails, citing rules that don’t require it.


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“Please be advised the records you request, if the records even exist, are not subject to disclosure pursuant to Senate Rules,” according to the secretary of the Senate’s written response to the request.

Cuomo has proposed extending the open records law to the Legislature. In his State of the State address in January, the governor called the state’s Freedom of Information Law “a central component of public integrity.”



“Yet the Legislature has exempted themselves,” he said. “It is indefensible, especially in today’s context for you to say you believe in the Freedom of Information Law and for you to sign bills reforming the Freedom of Information Law, but excluding yourself.”

The Cuomo administration has been criticized by journalists and transparency advocates for slow and often limited disclosures under the law beyond a prompt initial response acknowledging receipt of requests. The law does apply to executive agencies under the governor.

Cuomo’s office does disclose his daily schedule, typically long after the fact.

In the meantime, routine requests for information and correspondence at administrative agencies often prompt only a cursory response.

The AP filed an open records request in October 2014 seeking correspondence between New York and the White House about the state’s response to the Ebola virus. The state’s Department of Health still has not released the information, and as of an email dated March 3 said it is continuing to process the request.

While the Legislature’s exemption from the law is concerning, the administration’s slow and tepid responses to open records requests is a far bigger problem, according to John Kaehny, executive director of the group Reinvent Albany, which tracks government transparency.

That’s because most of the critical information about state operations is held by the executive branch, not the legislative, he said. That includes details on billions of dollars of state economic development funding, public authority spending and data at key health, law enforcement and environmental agencies.

If Cuomo and the Legislature are serious about transparency, he said, they should approve a law granting attorneys’ fees to citizens who successfully sue after being denied public information. The cost of mounting an uncertain legal battle with the state is often a deterrent to pursuing such cases.

“If you think you’re not going to get attorneys’ fees, that’s a big chiller,” he said. “Only very deep-pocketed interests have the resources to take these things to court. The agencies know that, and they basically ignore FOIL because they know no one is going to sue.”

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