Email: State attorney says 'doing state's business' more important than providing public records

Email: State attorney says 'doing state's business' more important than providing public records

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - The general counsel for the North Carolina Department of Revenue does not consider fulfilling public records requests to be part of the "state's business," according to an email obtained by WBTV.

The statement came in an email sent by Daniel Garner, the NCDOI's general counsel, to Jonathan Harris, an attorney who worked in then-Governor Pat McCrory's office in February 2016.

Garner emailed Harris to point out an advisory opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General that he felt supported his position that state agencies do not have to prioritize fulfilling public records requests over other state work.

WEB EXTRA: Click here to read Garner's email

At the time of the email, McCrory was the subject of a lawsuit brought on behalf of several organizations—including WRAL and the Raleigh News & Observer—accusing his administration of having a pattern and practice of violating the North Carolina Public Records Act.

"It gives at least some support to the notion that doing the state's business is a more important and pressing duty than satisfying public records requests, and this common sense approach has guided state government agencies for a long time," Garner wrote.

The email was obtained by WBTV Investigative Reporter Nick Ochsner as part of an ongoing public records lawsuit he brought against NCDOR to obtain correspondence and other records from the department.

Among the issues raised in the lawsuit is the fact that NCDOR, through Garner as the agency's general counsel, refused to conduct a search for records responsive to a public records request submitted in June 2016, months after Garner's email implying providing public records is not part of the state's business.

A NCDOR spokesman did not directly answer a question from WBTV raised Monday about whether Garner believes providing public records as required by law is part of the state's business.

"The Department of Revenue takes public records seriously and regards responding to records as part of its responsibilities under North Carolina law. We cannot comment on ongoing litigation," spokesman Schorr Johnson said. "The context of the quote clearly shows that Mr. Garner's words referred to a 1983 Attorney General's opinion."

The idea that state agencies should have discretion on when and how to fill public records requests was later used in a statement issued by a McCrory spokesman in response to the lawsuit. That statement caught the attention of Superior Court Judge John Craig, who presided over the case at the trial court level.

"It included pejorative references to Plaintiffs, questioned their motives in requesting public records and in pursuing this litigation, and suggested that Defendants may not assign appropriate priority to compliance with the Public Records Act," Craig wrote, according to a WRAL article published at the time of his ruling. "Discovery will enable this Court to determine with Defendants' policies or practices contradict the egalitarian principles underlying the Public Records Act."

A spokeswoman for Governor Roy Cooper—who oversees the North Carolina Department of Revenue as part of the state's executive branch of government—said the governor is committed to following the public records law.

"As a proponent for open government and the author of the state's public records act, Governor Cooper takes the need to fulfill the state's public records obligations seriously," spokeswoman Samantha Cole said. "The Cooper Administration is committed to fulfilling public records requests and understands their importance to a thriving press and engaged public."

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