Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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December: HIPAA’s reach is often overextended

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Recently, I was told by a court official in Outagamie County that federal law prohibited the release of the name of a man I had just heard speak in open court. He was a participant in the county's Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court. He had been charged with driving while intoxicated as a fourth offense, but was offered a chance to go through a treatment program instead of serving jail time.

I attended the proceeding as a reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent, working on a story for Gannett Wisconsin Media’s statewide probe into repeat drunken drivers. The man had made a point about the costs of the program and I wanted to verify his charge history.

But when I asked for his name, the court official said it could not be released, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. That law, commonly called HIPAA, protects private health information.

It also, as this episode attests, is often misapplied.

In this case, there was no valid reason for withholding the man's name, and after a discussion with the circuit judge, I was able to obtain it. I ended up using his comment but not naming him in my story.

This was a public program, run by publicly paid officials, involving criminal defendants serving court-ordered sentences. The decision of whether to use this person’s name should be up to the media, not the court official.

As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has noted, HIPAA remains a “prickly” obstacle for journalists. To help reduce conflicts and confusion, the group has sorted out just who and who isn’t impacted.

Health care organizations like hospitals, life insurers, ambulance services and public health authorities are all subject to HIPAA rules. Firefighters, police, court officials, reporters and patients themselves are not.

Neither are public officials who have nothing to do with the delivery of health care services. And yet, in one instance, a Louisiana State University representative told reporters he couldn’t discuss a player’s knee injury. “Due to these new medical laws, our hands are tied,” the official said.

Often, the most valuable information available to reporters is found on health facility directories, which are not protected by HIPAA. Hospitals may release an individual’s name, location in the facility and general condition. HIPAA also doesn’t bar reporters from interviewing patients in a waiting room.

Statistical information related to hospitals, including their billing data, is not covered by HIPAA. Much of this information can be released electronically without names attached.

The Association of Health Care Journalists has produced another useful list of what HIPAA does not protect, including police and fire incident reports, court records, birth and autopsy records.

Felice Freyer, the association’s treasurer and a member of its Right to Know Committee, said HIPAA overreach is widespread.

“Often times, people are unsure about the law and can’t be bothered to check so it’s easier to say ‘no’ and refer to HIPAA,” said Freyer, a health care reporter for the Boston Globe. “Frequently, hospitals say they can’t let you talk to a patient, but that’s not true.”

No one disputes that people have a right to privacy when it comes to personal medical matters. But that right should not be taken to absurd lengths, beyond what the law prescribes.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Nick Penzenstadler, formerly with the Post-Crescent in Appleton, is a reporter for USA Today.

Last Updated on Monday, 01 December 2014 10:19
 

November: Cops in shootings should be promptly named

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Following the Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens and the public demanded to know the involved officer’s name. The Ferguson Police Department stirred national attention, and some outrage, by waiting six days to reveal it: Officer Darren Wilson.

Wisconsin has Ferguson beat. On April 30, 2014, a Milwaukee police officer shot Dontre Hamilton 14 times, killing him. Hamilton, 31, was unarmed and had a history of paranoia and schizophrenia, according to his family. Yet Milwaukee police did not confirm the identity of the officer who shot him for more than four months.

True, the department disclosed the officer’s name to Hamilton’s family in July, more than two months after the incident, and the family later shared it at a community forum. But the department did not publicly name Officer Christopher Manney as the shooter until October. 

The department said it was just following past practice and was waiting to see whether the district attorney would file charges against the officer before releasing a name.

But in fact, Chief Edward Flynn identified Manney after the department’s internal investigation was completed, when he announced the officer’s termination from the force. No charging decision has yet been made.

There is obvious public interest in knowing the identities of law enforcement officers involved in shootings. Prompt identification of officers helps preserve public confidence in law enforcement and ensure correct information.  It also alerts the public earlier if other complaints and concerns have arisen about the officer.

Jonathan Safran, an attorney for the Hamilton family, told WISN 12 that citizens have a right to this information because “this is a publicly paid individual employed by the city of Milwaukee, and the police department is being paid by taxpayer dollars.”

Waiting for an indeterminate date to identify officers involved in citizen shootings can unreasonably delay release of this important information.  Internal and criminal investigations can stretch for weeks or months, as they did in Hamilton’s shooting. 

Complicating matters, there seems to be little consistency in how police departments approach this issue. Some routinely release the names of officers involved in fatal shootings immediately after those events.

Three days after the 2012 fatal police shooting of Paul Heenan, an unarmed local musician, Madison police released the name of the involved officer. News media then reported on other incidents involving the same officer, including an instance where he was suspended for shooting at the tires of a fleeing car.

The officer, Stephen Heimsness, later resigned after the department sought his dismissal for charges unrelated to the shooting.

In Ferguson, police said they withheld the name due to death threats against the officer and concerns for his safety. “Right now, people want it so they can destroy that person’s life,” Police Chief Thomas Jackson said. “That’s the only reason that group’s asking for it.”

While Ferguson was surely a charged situation, the police chief’s statement reflects cynicism and an unfortunate distrust of citizens. The department’s six-day delay also contributed to brewing frustration, lack of confidence in the department, and bad information. Hackers even attacked the department’s computers to learn the name, which resulted in the wrong person being named.

The Milwaukee Police Department, which has promptly named officers involved in other fatal shootings when it believes they have acted heroically, was wrong to withhold Manney’s name for so long.

There are many downsides, and little benefit, to waiting for internal or external reviews to be completed before providing the public with accurate information about officer-involved shootings. The Milwaukee Police Department and other police departments should reconsider their practices.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Christa Westerberg, at attorney with  McGillivray Westerberg & Bender, is the group's vice-president.

Last Updated on Monday, 03 November 2014 12:55
 

September: Disciplined workers should be named

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When state employees misbehave, does the public have a right to know who they are? Two state agencies are answering that question in different ways.

Both the state Department of Justice and Department of Natural Resources have in the recent past blacked out the names of state workers from records of disciplinary actions released to the media. The agencies claimed the public interest was “sufficiently served” by releasing these redacted records.

The jousting began in 2013 when The Associated Press requested disciplinary records for DOJ employees. The agency released the records but not the names. Earlier this year, the AP made a similar request to the DNR and got a similar result.

But the DNR has had a change of heart. In late August, after an open records request by the Lakeland Times of Minocqua, the agency released the names of management and law enforcement employees disciplined in 2013, and those engaged in “more serious misconduct.” It has since signaled plans to release the rest.

The Justice Department, though, stands by its decision to withhold the names of employees found to be breaking the rules.

“When a disciplined employee’s name is not released, the public is still informed about what the discipline was and why it was imposed,” said DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck. The released information, she continued, “allows the public to see that its government is holding line staff employees accountable for their actions and taking steps to correct those situations, without stigmatizing the employees for minor violations.”

In its February 2013 letter to the AP, the Justice Department said none of the disciplined workers was “highly placed,” all were cited for work rule violations, and that publicizing their names “would embarrass them” and be “counterproductive” in persuading employees to correct their behavior.

The letter also claimed that supervisors would be less likely to mete out discipline if the names of employees were routinely released.

I’m not convinced.

First of all, rank shouldn’t matter. Whether the workers are line workers or top management, the same rules should apply. And even minor work rule violations can have a serious impact on morale, especially if there is a pattern of abuse. Without the names, it is harder for the public to know about patterns of conduct — or if the state responded promptly and fairly.

I’m no advocate of public shaming, but knowing there is a possibility your name will become public might be a deterrent to bad behavior. And as for supervisors who are reluctant to discipline employees for fear of disclosure, I’d argue that management is no place for the faint-hearted.

Finally, working in the public eye has always meant giving up a small amount of privacy.

Current state law requires a “balancing test” to determine whether information can be shared with the public. The test begins with a strong presumption of openness that must be weighed against arguments favoring secrecy.

In a 2006 decision, Kroeplin vs. DNR, a state appeals court ruled against a conservation warden who tried to keep his disciplinary record secret. The court concluded “the public’s strong interest in accessing these records is not outweighed in any way by the reasons offered by the DNR for preventing disclosure.”

The DOJ, which cited the Kroeplin case in its letter to the AP, seems to have relied on a narrow reading of the case while ignoring its overriding theme: openness trumps secrecy.

This could all be simpler. State law could require that every public worker who is disciplined be named. That might deter misbehavior. It certainly would guarantee a better informed public.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. David Haynes, a council member, is the editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 September 2014 14:21
 

October: Walker, Burke weigh in on openness

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Mary Burke was succinct. She used a single word —“Yes” — to answer four of six questions
from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council about open government.

The Democratic candidate for governor responded affirmatively when asked if she would:

 

  • Release a detailed weekly calendar in advance listing her appointments, public meetings and travel schedule.
  • Support ending the Legislature’s exemption from records retention rules in place for other state and local officials.
  • Back making public bodies record closed meetings in case of a dispute over what was discussed.
  • Conduct all public business on public computer networks and devices.

Those are responses that should please open government advocates.

Burke, a Madison School Board member making her first run for statewide office, also said in her written responses that the Legislature should be subject to the state’s open meetings law, though she continues to believe party caucuses should be able to meet in secret. Why?

“To limit the potential that lobbyists — who would be allowed to attend if caucuses were subject to this law — could have any more influence than they already do,” she said.

We believe she doth protest too much. We’d gladly allow dozens of lobbyists to attend the caucuses where much of the real business of governing (and party arm-twisting) gets done if members of the media and public could also attend.

Gov. Scott Walker, her Republican opponent, was less direct.

In his written responses, Walker sidestepped the question about releasing calendars in advance, saying he makes his calendars available monthly upon request “as required by state law.” He has continued predecessor Jim Doyle’s approach of pre-announcing only select events, often with less than 24-hours’ notice.

Walker also declined to say whether the Legislature should abide by the open records law or be subject to the meetings law, including party caucuses. Instead, he responded that he retains “all public records, including email, for public inspection upon request.”

According to Walker, it’s up to the political parties to open their caucuses, which they could do without a change in state law. He’s right on that point, and we’re still waiting.

And, in response to the question about conducting the public’s business on public electronic devices, he said his office “instituted a clear ethics and professional code of conduct policy for all staff and cabinet officials in 2011. All public business done on any device, public or personal, is subject to Wisconsin’s strong open records laws.”

That’s heartening. As many people know, Walker’s office when he was Milwaukee County Executive set up a secret email system so staffers could evade the records law.

We also asked both candidates to describe the state’s biggest open government problem.

Walker cited the inability of the public to review the state’s finances online — a problem he takes credit for having solved.

“Now the state’s checkbook is online at http://openbook.wi.gov,” Walker said. “Recently, Wisconsin was rated one of the most transparent states in the nation because of this reform.” He vowed to expand the functionality and add local governments.

Burke, in turn, called for disclosure of the source of issue-ad funding.

“Any group spending money in an election on an issue should have to disclose where their money is coming from and abide by campaign finance laws like any other group or candidate,” she said.

Here are the full candidate responses:

Scott Walker

Mary Burke

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member Mark Pitsch is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 October 2014 08:04
 

August: AG rivals all back more openness

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In Wisconsin, the office of attorney general has the authority to interpret and prosecute the state’s open records and open meetings laws. It is arguably the most important office in the state for promoting and defending our tradition of open government.

With that in mind, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council asked the three Democrats and one Republican vying for this position to say where they stand on questions related to these issues.

The Democratic candidates vying in the Aug. 12 primary are Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ and state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee. The winner will face Republican Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel on Nov. 4.

All four candidates agree that the state should not limit access to online court records on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website, commonly known as CCAP. Complaints that landlords and employers use the site to unfairly deny housing and jobs have spurred legislative proposals to limit what information is available, or who may obtain it.

But all four candidates said the website is an important source of public information about the court system and should continue pretty much as is.

“I will voice my objections if the Legislature attempted to make it more difficult for citizens to gain access to public records, including court records available through CCAP,” Schimel said.

The four candidates also believe lawmakers should be required to follow state records retention rules, like all other state and local officials. Currently lawmakers are free to discard or delete office records unless there’s a pending open-records request for them.

Said Happ, “Legislators should not be exempt from the same rules the rest of state government has to follow.”

The four also agreed lawmakers should be subject to the state’s open meetings law. All but Richards said they believed the Legislature already had to abide by it.

While that’s generally true, there’s an exemption for caucuses at which the party in power can make decisions behind closed doors before pro-forma votes in public. And in 2011, the state Supreme Court, in a case brought by Ozanne about passage of the controversial Act 10, ruled the Legislature can make — or break — its own rules on how much public notice it gives of upcoming meetings.

Richards, who wrote an unsuccessful proposal to reverse the impact of that decision, said, “Wisconsin citizens deserve to know what is happening in their government and when it is happening, and we need to fully restore the state open meetings law in Wisconsin.”

The only real difference between the candidates was over whether prosecutors’ files should be open to public review. A 1991 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling exempted these records. In 2005, then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a former state attorney general, said he supported ending this exemption, but the idea never gained traction.

Schimel, Happ and Richards all said such files should generally remain closed to protect crime victims, confidential informants and other sensitive information. But Ozanne said he would tend to release such records in completed cases and redact private information as needed.

“The public has an interest in the integrity of a criminal investigation and possible prosecution,” Ozanne said.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Hall, a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal, is the group’s secretary.

Full candidate responses:

Susan Happ

Ismael Ozanne

Jon Richards

Brad Schimel

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 July 2014 15:53
 
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