Utah Supreme Court sides with local reporter investigating former public servant
The Utah Supreme Court said a former public servant lacked the legal capacity to try to block the release of public documents related to allegations of misconduct against him. (Jordan Allred, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Supreme Court has ruled in favor of an investigative reporter trying to gather more information on the misconduct allegations against a former public servant who raised confidentiality concerns while seeking to block the publication of police records and other documents.
Judges’ opinion on Thursday has the effect of allowing veteran Utah journalist Cathy McKitrick to gain access to the records more than three years after she first asked police for them from Ogden.
Despite the delay, McKitrick and his lawyers say the ruling is a freedom of information victory that will help more journalists access similar information faster in the future.
“For me that’s a clear victory,” said McKitrick, who retired from the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden in 2018, but continues to report for the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and other outlets. Had the State High Court gone the other way, she said, “that would have fundamentally – in my opinion – gutted our GRAMA law, where any elected public official could claim the right. privacy and have records withheld. “
McKitrick referred to the Government Records Access and Management Act of Utah. She had been investigating accusations that former Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson, who went on to oversee the state’s agriculture department, used county equipment to work on his own dairy farm, among other allegations.
Prosecutors for neighboring Davis County reviewed the case and declined to press charges against him. Gibson’s attorney Peter Stirba said prosecutors had not found “sufficient evidence” behind the allegations and that the publication of files would invade his privacy. Such information “can seriously damage someone’s reputation, simply on the basis of a series of unsubstantiated and unsubstantiated allegations,” he said.
But McKitrick wanted to see for herself the kind of information investigators were gathering. His initial request for records was transferred from the police department to an independent panel of records and to the 2nd Ogden District Court, where a judge ruled Gibson could appeal the panel’s decision allowing McKitrick to obtain the records. files. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying that under these circumstances only the person requesting the documents and “political subdivisions” like cities and counties can do so.
The gist of the decision (of the Utah Supreme Court) is that just because you’re involved in a public record doesn’t mean you can sue to prevent its publication if the government is determined to release it.
–David Reymann, lawyer
“He really couldn’t argue the issue because the Supreme Court ruled he had no standing,” Stirba said of his client. “He couldn’t even get up to hit the ball because he couldn’t get up at plate, that’s what the Supreme Court basically said.”
The reporter and her lawyers had a different takeout.
“The gist of detention is that just because you are involved in a public file does not mean you can take legal action to prevent its publication if the government is determined to release it,” the lawyer said. David Reymann, a member of the legal team who represented McKitrick at no cost. “That’s really at the heart of this case: whether the court was going to allow people to block embarrassing cases during years of litigation.”
He said the answer is no. Reymann expects other journalists like McKitrick to be able to point to opinion now and get the information they seek more quickly.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. McKitrick noted that the process can be long and difficult in other ways for journalists seeking information that government officials do not wish to disclose.
“It’s a fight,” McKitrick said. But the move is reassuring because it means the media won’t have to worry so much about covering the cost of protracted legal battles waged by people at the misconduct investigation center.
“At the moment, I don’t know too many journalists or media that have a lot of money,” she said.
Gibson resigned from the post of state in 2020 to run for Congress and lost. A state audit released later in the year concluded that he improperly used a state car for personal travel in Bear Lake, among other issues. Gibson did not return a message requesting comment.