Open government triumphs in Utah

Sep 29, 2015

By Sara DeForge Hough

Government Relations Manager | NNA

SALT LAKE CITY, UT—Overturning a decision by the district court, the Supreme Court of Utah recently ruled that a court may release attorney work product under Utah open records laws if “the interests favoring disclosure outweigh those favoring protection.”

Elected officials engaging in unethical and potentially criminal activity is a matter of public concern. In this case, the Supreme Court found citizens’ right to know about issues of potential public corruption grossly outweighed the policy decision behind protecting attorney work product. The court found the district court erred in its decision by focusing on policy decisions, rather than the individual facts in this case. 

Also, the court found that records obtained under a lawful search and seizure investigation are not exempt from requirements of public disclosure. The court ruled that after any non-public information was redacted, per Government Records Access and Management Act, it was not a violation of the Utah Constitution to release this information.

A concerned citizen, Dan Schroeder, filed a GRAMA open records request to state agencies in Utah seeking information regarding a nonprofit organization formed by the mayor of Ogden, UT.

The organization, Envision Ogden, was created to promote business and recreation in the city. However, it was later discovered, through an IRS and subsequent attorney general investigation, that funds were siphoned to political campaigns, and a shell company was created to hide the illegal action. After the attorney general closed the case, Schroeder requested copies of all records pertaining to the investigation.

After disclosing only a limited amount of material, the Utah State Records Committee ordered the office of attorney general to release some, but not all, additional documents that Schroeder requested. Upon appeal by both parties to the district court, the state court found that GRAMA did not require the release of any of the documents requested.