From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Bumpy road for FOI bill.

In Dan Greenberg, Dustin McDaniel, FOI on 3 February 2009 at 9:41 pm

The big news in the House Judiciary Committee today was its approval of a bill that would allow concealed weapons in churches. But the committee also considered, and declined to make a recommendation on, a matter with the potential to have just as much impact across the state: expansion of FOI laws to allow any Arkansan free access to the criminal records of elected officials, state agency heads and political candidates. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Greenberg, would only apply to convictions and pleas of guilty or nolo contendere.

The measure met with stiff resistance in committee. Speakers against included Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and representatives from the state police and the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC), which retains criminal information and distributes it to entitled parties.

“I am quite certain that no attorney general in Arkansas has ever spoken against any bill that has to do with guarding the FOI,” McDaniel said before registering his objections. He said that there could be thousands of requests under the new law. He also argued that political disclosure forms provide an adequate mechanism for vetting politicians’ criminal records. Lying on such a form is a Class D felony. “I would not oppose legislation that sent forms to ACIC for a single check,” McDaniel said.

“I believe that this bill is precisely the opposite of SB112,” McDaniel added in reference to a bill that would allow investigators from the attorney general’s office access to ACIC. SB112 passed the House Judiciary Committee today and awaits final approval in the House. The Senate has already approved it.

Representatives from the state police and ACIC were concerned about the volume of requests that might be made under the law. They argued that they do not have enough funding to fill requests from the general public.

Speaking on behalf of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Jeff Rosenzweig said the bill appeared to apply retroactively to anyone who had ever run for political office.

The only person to speak for the bill was Rick Peltz, a professor at University of Arkansas Bowen School of Law.

(Read on for Rep. Greenberg’s reaction.)

Rep. Greenberg pulled the bill and was visibly upset with the outcome of the hearing. “I am sorry to have put ya’ll through this,” he told the committee. “It was my impression that we had met the concerns of several of the agencies that have spoken today.”

“Information about the criminal background of candidates is relevant,” Rep. Greenberg added. “Frankly, this reminds me of the debates over the original FOI bill that I’ve read about.”

The first FOI act in Arkansas was passed in 1967.

Rep. Greenberg has faced several tough hearings in front of the House Judiciary Committee. This is the second time the criminal records bill has been pulled down in the face of questioning, and last week he halted action on a bill that would change the burden of proof in criminal cases where the defendant offers a confession.

The criminal records bill is part of a package of FOI-related legislation that Rep. Greenberg is offering this session. Other bills include one that would bar public employers from retaliating against workers who make FOI requests and another that would require the state to establish a website disclosing how it spends money. Those bills await action in the House State Agencies Committee.

McDaniel has vocally opposed another of Rep. Greenberg’s bills, one that would allow anyone to appeal an FOI-request rejection to the attorney general. Rep. Greenberg said last week that he is still trying to iron out a compromise with McDaniel’s office on the measure.

  1. Thank you for recognizing the significance of HB 1051. I was disappointed that concealed weapons in churches won headlines, but resistence of elected officials to the revelation of their criminal histories seemed not to trouble the media in the least.

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