Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s office has come under criticism from a state nonprofit that works to protect access to government records.
A statement by Fallin’s general counsel, Steve Mullins, about withholding emails relating to intergovernmental deliberations is “disappointing” and “puzzling,” Lindel Hutson, the president of FOI Oklahoma, wrote in a letter to the governor on Wednesday.
“Your legal advisers have claimed that records requested by various media outlets are protected by privileges that far exceed what the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court have granted government officials,” wrote Hutson, retired bureau chief for The Associated Press in Oklahoma.
Citing executive privilege and attorney-client privilege, Mullins told The Oklahoman in November that releasing electronic communications that pertain to state deliberations on public policy decisions could hurt policymakers’ abilities to have productive internal discussions.
His remarks came in response to a records request filed by the newspaper for emails that could shed light on how Fallin decided to create a state health insurance exchange and then later changed her mind.
In a meeting with The Oklahoman’s management Thursday, Fallin’s spokesman, Alex Weintz, said the governor’s office is working to compile “hundreds of thousands” of emails that fall under the newspaper’s records request.
The request, which asks for six months of emails relating to the development of a state health care exchange, will include more documents than all other records requests combined filed at Fallin’s office since she began her term in 2010, Weintz said.
The email records will be reviewed individually by Fallin’s legal advisers, but the governor will have final say as to which documents will be considered privileged and which will be opened for review, he said.
Similar records requests have since been filed by three other media outlets, he said.
“This is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, and right now we’re processing the request and we haven’t denied any documents,” Weintz said.
He estimated it will take 100-plus man-hours and as long as two months to make the documents available.
In the same meeting, Secretary of State Glenn Coffee said that records requests filed with then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s office in 2009 crippled that state’s government and ultimately led to her early resignation.
At the time of her resignation, Palin cited ethics probes and the needs of her family as reasons for stepping down.
Hutson and other open records advocates said the exemptions Mullins cited do not exist in the state’s Open Records Act and that Fallin’s office is trying to redefine state law to limit access.
He included in the letter a copy of a 2010 pledge by Fallin to comply with the letter and spirit of the act.
“These are decisions that are going to have a significant social and economic impact for many Oklahomans, so under those circumstances why can’t we be upfront and say how these decisions are made,” Hutson said. “What’s there that she doesn’t want us to know about?”
Mullins cited similar privileges after receiving records request from The Tulsa World and The Associated Press earlier this year.