Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration has 30 days to turn over emails that passed between former Gov. Mike Pence, the Trump administration and Carrier Corp. related to the negotiations by then-President-elect Donald Trump to prevent Carrier's Indianapolis plant from moving most of its operations to Mexico.
Marion Superior Judge Heather Welch issued an order this week forcing Holcomb’s office to disclose any communications, including meeting minutes and documents about meetings, sent from Nov. 14-29, 2016, between Pence, Trump and Carrier.
Also, the court found the governor violated the Access to Public Records Act by failing to provide updates on the status of the request for the documents.
Citizens Action Coalition filed the complaint in June 2017, alleging the governor’s office was violating Indiana’s open records law by not providing the requested information. The watchdog group hailed the court order.
“The ruling in CAC’s public records suit is a resounding reaffirmation of the important policy goals embodied in Indiana’s governmental transparency laws,” said William Groth, counsel for CAC. “It also reaffirms that the burden of proof for delaying or denying access must always remain on the government rather than on the person seeking disclosure.”
Holcomb's office said the opinion is still being reviewed. Also, the administration said it values transparent government and will follow the law.
"As Indiana's Public Access Counsel previously noted, the Governor's Office offered to work with Citizens Action Coalition during this process to narrow its public records requests," Holcomb's office said in a statement. "They chose to file this lawsuit instead. The Governor's Office remains willing to work with Citizens Action Coalition to efficiently and effectively provide it with public records."
CAC requested the Carrier-related documents in December 2016 when Pence was still governor. At that time, the not-for-profit was told the administration would try to produce the records as quickly and completely as possible.
However, after not getting any further response, CAC asked for a status update in February 2017 from the governor’s office, then occupied by Holcomb. The Holcomb administration immediately replied, saying it would research the status of the CAC’s request, but then in mid-April, more than two months later, demanded the CAC provide a clarification of the information it was seeking.
The governor’s office argued the CAC’s request was not sufficiently specific to satisfy the standard in the public records act.
Reviewing decisions from the Indiana Court of Appeals as well as the Public Access Counselor, the Marion Superior Court disagreed, finding the CAC did meet the “reasonable particularity” standard.
“While the Court understands that (CAC staff attorney Jennifer) Washburn did not identify specific email addresses of senders and recipients, the Court believes that should not be a requirement in all cases, especially when the subject matter is so narrow that the public agency should know exactly where to search for the requested records,” Welch wrote.
Groth said he believes the order could have far-reaching consequences.
“If this ruling stands, public officials will no longer be able to use dilatory tactics and vague claims that requests aren’t particular enough to avoid or delay disclosing public records,” he said.
The court did find, however, that the CAC’s additional request for documents between Pence and any Indiana governmental entity or any third party referencing Trump and Carrier do present valid concern regarding “reasonable particularity.”
Even so, in regard to additional documents being sought, the court ordered the governor’s office and CAC to meet within one month to identify which parties may have the relevant information so the request can be narrowed.
“This order represents one of the most significant judicial pronouncements in Indiana with respect to the issue of governmental transparency,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of CAC. “It breathes new life into APRA’s stated public policy that government is the servant of the people, not vice versa, and that all Hoosiers are entitled to ‘full and complete information’ regarding the affairs of their state government.”
The negotiations between Trump, Carrier and the state led to an agreement by Carrier to retain 1,069 jobs in Indianapolis in return for about $7 million in tax incentives.