Michael Cook: Leslie Rutledge Under Fire For Hiding Public Records
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is catching heat for her role in helping hide employment records from the public that could shed light on a state government agency director’s previous firing from law enforcement.
Some quick background. Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Boyce Hamlet to be the Alcoholic Beverage Control enforcement director, a plum and powerful appointment as the position oversees all liquor licenses.
It turns out Hamlet was fired by the Arkansas State Police back in 2000 when he was a trooper recruit.
Russ Racop – whose blog badaralcoholcontol.blogspot.com has been critical of the Alcoholic Beverage Control agency – submitted a Freedom of Information request for Hamlet’s Arkansas State Police records. Racop believes Hamlet was fired for cheating on an exam and then lying about it.
State government personnel records are generally exempt from FOIA requests, unless the employee was fired, then their file becomes subject to pubic scrutiny. Hamlet was clearly fired by the Arkansas State Police.
The Arkansas State Police believed Hamlet’s records were subject to release and were prepared to do so until Rutledge stepped in since Hamlet requested an Attorney General’s opinion, as was his right under the FOIA.
Rutledge decided Hamlet’s records should not be released, saying in her opinion that, “The public does not have a compelling public interest in these documents.”
My first thought when reading her argument was: “Is this a joke?”
The head of the ABC’s enforcement division was once fired by the Arkansas State Police and Rutledge believes we don’t have the right to fully know why? When any other state government employee is fired, we’re allowed to view their file, so it stands to reason that we should be able to view Hamlet’s file.
Was Hamlet fired for stealing? Lying? Drug use? We won’t officially know unless we see his file. Maybe it was a minor infraction, but just enough to get Hamlet fired, but Rutledge refuses to let the public know for certain.
A recent editorial in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette takes Rutledge to task for her opinion to hide records from the public:
“What’s the point? Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge botched an interpretation of the state’s open records law, a decision that helps prevent scrutiny of an appointment decision made by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.”
The editorial goes on to say:
“So, is Rutledge being a good attorney general or providing cover for her party’s governor? The public will have to evaluate that in spite of whatever ‘self-protective instincts of the government bureaucracy’ may be at play.”
This issue is not going away just yet as Racop filed a FOI lawsuit against the state to have Hamlet’s file opened since Rutledge denied his original request. In his lawsuit, Racop also contends Hamlet essentially lied by omission by neglecting to include his time with the Arkansas State Police when applying for future law enforcement jobs.
One last quote from the Democrat-Gazette editorial:
“She may view the nature of his [Hamlet’s] infraction as minor, but it was enough to get him fired by Arkansas State Police. Isn’t that significant now that he’s in a role of far greater responsibility?”
In my opinion, Rutledge, a longtime Republican political operative, is simply covering up for Hutchinson’s appointment to avoid embarrassing the titular head of her party.
The public has a right to know for certain if the head of ABC enforcement is someone who can be trusted, and his past firing by the State Police raises serious doubts. Hamlet’s personnel file should be open to inspection and if he did nothing wrong, then Hamlet should have nothing to hide.
The larger issue here is our Attorney General seems to be against the public’s right to know the truth about our government employees and leaders. This is not a hopeful sign for future government transparency.