Sen. Witkos Questions Secrecy at Department of Labor

September 9, 2014

Why is Commissioner Palmer Skirting the State’s Freedom of Information Laws?

Hartford – Today State Senator Kevin Witkos (R-8) is questioning why the Department of Labor has repeatedly refused to share public information requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

In March, Senator Witkos requested DOL Commissioner Sharon Palmer share all correspondence concerning a proposed bill raised during the past legislative session. The DOL has avoided making this information public, and now a formal Freedom of Information Commission hearing may be the only way to attain transparency.

“This is an unsettling example of government secrecy at its worst,” said Witkos, who filed a formal complaint with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission after being denied information by DOL. “I submitted a relatively simple request almost 6 months ago. Instead of being honest and providing this information, DOL has tried to skirt the law and abuse the system to avoid sharing documents that the public has every right to see.”

Senator Witkos initially requested information from the commissioner on March 14. After reviewing public hearing testimony concerning Senate Bill 268 An Act Concerning Apprenticeship Ratios, Witkos found it odd that a union official indicated that the commissioner was “opposed” to the bill prior to the commissioner sharing her own testimony announcing her opposition.

“I was surprised that someone outside the DOL would know what the commissioner planned to include in her testimony on the bill. That made me curious about how, when and why the commissioner decided to oppose the bill. So I sought out an explanation,” said Witkos.

Under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, Witkos requested all written communications between the commissioner and others concerning the proposed legislation, including emails, texts and letters, as well as written summaries of phone calls and voicemails.

DOL lawyers denied his request, claiming that all correspondence regarding the bills and all internal documentation was exempt under the law based on attorney client privilege. But Witkos says that argument doesn’t hold water.

The attorney client privilege can only apply to communications between Palmer and her staff attorneys. If additional individuals are included in such correspondence, that privilege no longer applies.

“If a union official knew about the commissioner’s opposition to the bill before her testimony, clearly there was correspondence with at least one outside person about the legislation, which negates attorney client privilege,” said Witkos.

“It is very disturbing to see a public official misuse the attorney client principle as an excuse to conceal her communication from the public. This is a blatant attempt to evade disclosure under the law,” said Witkos.

As the DOL continues to refuse sharing the information, a FOI hearing date was originally set for September 26, but has been postponed at the request of the Attorney General.

“It should not have to come down to a forced hearing to resolve this issue,” said Witkos. “As citizens, we all have a right to access information concerning the activities in state government and the legislative process. When a state official tries to skirt the law and inhibit our right to transparency that is a serious problem we cannot take lightly.”