Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Truth, Transparency, and Disclosure Needed in Our Government

When someone wants to know the facts behind something in which the government has the information, where does that person turn? One might think that the source of the information would be the best place to look, but what if the source is unwilling to co-operate? Here are some examples:

In 2005 rampant fraud was committed and proven during the collection of signatures for the failed anti-gay marriage petition. A criminal investigation was allegedly initiated, but where is it now? Martha Coakely's office has been unwilling to even respond to the inquiry, let alone come forward with what is supposed to be public knowledge. When trying to follow up on this "investigation" I can't even get the name of the person who was supposedly in charge of it.

In 2007 Barry Scott was assaulted by police officers in Provincetown, then he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and disturbing the peace. There were four police officers present at the time of arrest, yet when I called the police department I was given the names of only two, as if there were only two present. I would have thought the omission was accidental until I tried to obtain a copy of all police reports, and was denied. The names of the two policemen who were withheld also happened to be the part-time summer officers, who's training has come under question.

Police reports are a matter of public record and are made available to the public upon request. Denying this request is a violation of the law; when law enforcement officials put themselves above the law they are sworn to uphold, to whom do we turn? Don Gordon, head of the Boston Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project has filed a freedom of information act in order to force the report into public view. Who knows what was in that report, or why acting chief of police Warren Tobias would take such drastic measures to conceal it, but it seems his actions have cost him his job. Twice since then he has gone before the town administration to be voted in as chief, and twice he has been denied. He has since given his notice and is in the process of "retiring" seeing the writing on the wall.

Lastly I would cite the interesting case of Ben LaGuer. Here is a man who was convicted in 1983 by an all white all male jury of raping an elderly neighbor. A man who at only 20 years old had already been honorably discharged from the Army and had just returned from Germany with no criminal record what so ever. The sole evidence against LaGuer was her word he was the one. In spite of the fact that the jury was found to be racist by our state supreme court, in spite of the fact that the victim was known to have been schizophrenic (she thought any men of color were her attacker), and in spite of the state concealing and then losing fingerprint evidence that could have proven to us that LaGuer is innocent, those in law enforcement refuse to take another look at the facts. They have also refused to co-operate in most every way imaginable, including trying to block a DNA test that could have cleared LaGuer had the evidence not been corrupted. Why wasn't the more likely assailant who actually had a motive not investigated? Why did police take items of no consequence from LaGuer's apartment without a warrant, and why has that error not been corrected even after all these years? Why are the chain of custody papers for evidence withheld from public view? When those people charged with these duties don't perform them to our expectations, to whom do we turn? We does the public find relief and answers when even state legislators are ignored?

It's time we made it clear to our government that we want transparency. We want to be able to access public records with ease unless there is a good reason for the denial of those records. Those who break the law should be held accountable for their actions just like any other citizen. There is no job requirement from those in law enforcement that ask for them to do such things and they should not be able to use their office as a protective umbrella against the consequences of such actions.

I propose that we have legislation filed that gives clarity to citizen's expectations of public information, and what type of co-operation should be expected of our state run law enforcement facilities. That legislation should also include clear penalties for those who continue to think they can evade the eye of the public by ignoring our requests for information.

The most dangerous consequence of our inactions here would be that this failed system burdens us in some similar fashion either directly or through someone we love. If you are not concerned about these cases or any others at least take a moment to reflect on what it would be like if the system was working in this fashion against you.

As one last example, Freelance writer/activist Ed Brayton has filed a freedom of information act in order to find out how our nation settled a law suit with other countries and was denied access. Here's a link to his story HERE.

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