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LANOSGA: And you thought the feds were secretive

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LanosgaGovernment secrecy is big news these days. Recent stories have revealed confidential federal programs to collect massive amounts of data from cell phone and Internet companies. What’s more, the programs were authorized by secret orders of a secret court. The only reason we know about these things that government is doing in our name—and with our money—is that information was leaked to journalists.

The revelations have spawned a million commentaries, and there’s no need for me to add to them. But one thing has been echoing in my head lately, a comment a local political activist recently made.

“Some of the most secret governments are on the local level,” he told me.

That might be a bit over the top considering the creepy Orwellian stuff we know about the feds, but it’s worth stopping to think about the things state and local governments are keeping from you. They are legion and often perfectly legal, thanks to Indiana’s expansive restrictions on information.

As I’ve mentioned before, the state’s Access to Public Records Act contains numerous exceptions to public disclosure. There are 13 categories of explicitly confidential records and another 24 categories for which public officials are given discretion to withhold.

Here’s a fun challenge: Can you guess how often officials choose to release these discretionary records? I’ll buy coffee for anyone who can show me an example.

The access law, by the way, is not the final word on secret records. The law’s first two exceptions are broad catchalls for any records declared confidential by statute or agency rule. Naturally, there are a multitude of such declarations.

Now, it should be said that many of these categories of confidential records make sense. Reasonable people understand there is some information that shouldn’t be released—Social Security numbers, blueprints of government buildings and scoring keys for licensing exams come to mind.

The concern with these restrictions, though, is that they are so broad and sometimes so poorly defined that they allow government agencies to withhold far more information than is reasonable under common-sense notions.

An example: the “discretionary” exception for law enforcement investigatory records. No one would argue the public should be able to see a list of confidential informants or detectives’ notes in open cases. But what about closed cases? Do investigatory records ever stop being investigatory? The law doesn’t say.

In practice, agencies have interpreted this exception as mandatory and have used it to withhold a huge swath of information. Just last month, the Indianapolis Fire Department tried to withhold routine inspection reports on businesses in the Belmont Street fire, citing the investigatory exception.

Incidentally, Indiana law enforcement agencies, like federal agencies, are authorized to hide information regarding investigations relating to sensitive criminal matters, including terrorism. A new law, in fact, allows them to refuse to even acknowledge the existence of such records.

And did you know that, by rule, Indiana courts can have cases that are completely shielded from public disclosure? Such cases wouldn’t even show up in a computer search of a court’s active caseload.

Does all this make you wonder what government agencies are up to here in Indiana? It should, and that’s a healthy impulse—an instinct of suspicion toward the exercise of hidden power that predates the republic. The political philosopher Gunter Grass said, “The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.”

It’s a good idea to keep your eyes open as well.•

__________

Lanosga is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University and president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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  1. Now if he'd just stay there...

  2. Daniel - what about the many US citizens who do NOT follow what the Bible teaches? The Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others who are all American citizens entitled to all rights as Americans?? This issue has NOTHING to do with "What the Bible says..." Keep all Churches separate from State! Pence's ongoing idiocy continues to make Indiana look like a backwards, homophobic state in the eyes of our nation. Can't we move on to bigger issues - like educating our kids?

  3. 1. IBJ should link to the referenced report. We are in the age of electronic media...not sharing information is lazy. Here is a link http://www.in.gov/gov/files/Blue_Ribbon_Panel_Report_July_9_2014.pdf 2. The article should provide more clarity about the make-up of this panel. The commenters are making this item out to be partisan, it does not appear the panel is partisan. Here is a list of the panel which appears to be balanced with different SME to add different perspectives http://www.in.gov/activecalendar/EventList.aspx?view=EventDetails&eventidn=138116?formation_id=189603 3. It suggests a by-pass, I do not see where this report suggests another "loop". 4. Henry, based on your kneejerk reaction, we would be better off if you moved to another state unless your post was meant as sarcasm in which case I say Well Done. 5. The article and report actually indicates need to improve rail and port infrastructure in direct contradiction to Shayla commentary. Specifically, recommendation is to consider passenger rail projects... 6. People have a voice with their elected officials. These are suggestions and do not represent "crony capitalism", etc. The report needs to be analyzed and the legislature can decide on priorities and spending. Don't like it, then vote in a new legislature but quit artificially creating issues where there are none! People need to sift through the politics and provide constructive criticism to the process rather than making uninformed comments in a public forum based on misinformation. IBJ should work harder to correct the record in these forums when blatant errors or misrepresentations are made.

  4. Joe ... Marriage is defined in the Bible ... it is mentioned in the Bible often. Marriage is not mentioned once in the US or Indiana Constitution ...

  5. Daniel - Educate me please: what does the Bible have to do with laws? If the government wasn't in the business of marriage to begin with, then it wouldn't have to "define" marriage at all. Marriage could be left as a personal, religious, or otherwise unregulated action, with no ties to taxes, legal status, etc. Then people could marry whomever they want, and all this silliness would go away. Remember to vote Libertarian in November.

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