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Lawsuit: Raffensperger thwarts requests for public records

By David Wickert, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(CNT) City News And Talk #atlanta-ga

An ethics watchdog says Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office has failed to respond to dozens of requests for government records related to state elections.

In a lawsuit filed last week in Fulton County Superior Court, the group American Oversight said it has filed 61 requests for public records with Raffensperger’s office over the last 19 months. It says the office has produced records in response to only three of those requests, in violation of the Georgia Open Records Act.

The secretary of state’s office said it is reviewing the complaint and “will get all requested public records produced to them as soon as possible.” It also cited turnover in its open records staff and disruptions caused by COVID-19, which “has made initial time estimates not as accurate as we would like.”

“The secretary of state’s office takes it obligations under the Georgia Open Records Act very seriously,” the office said in a written statement. “We have received over 1,000 open records requests so far this year, or over five per business day.”

The office is the latest state agency to come under scrutiny recently because of concerns about public access to government records.

In July, an investigation by Georgia Health News found the Department of Public Health had stymied dozens of requests for information related to the coronavirus pandemic. The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency has redacted thousands of pages of pandemic-related documents requested by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. More recently GEMA has said it will cost tens of thousands of dollars and take months to process additional AJC records requests.

American Oversight bills itself as a nonpartisan ethics watchdog that is “investigating voter suppression and other threats to democracy.” Among other things, the group says it has asked the secretary of state for emails related to an absentee ballot fraud task force, communication regarding voter roll maintenance, the impact of the coronavirus and records related to primary election problems in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

The lawsuit says Raffensperger’s office has stopped responding to American Oversight’s queries about its pending requests – even after the group paid $904.30 in retrieval fees to process eight of its requests.

“Despite American Oversight having already paid for the record retrieval, defendants have not produced any records for these requests,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit is based on what American Oversight calls the “inadequate” response to 30 of its requests for records. It seeks a permanent injunction requiring the secretary of state to comply with the Open Records Act, which requires government records to be available for inspection by the public.

In a statement announcing the lawsuit, American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers said “Raffensperger’s failure to meet basic transparency obligations is a serious red flag that his office’s record is better hidden than disclosed.”

In its written statement, the secretary of state’s office laid some of the blame for the outstanding records requests on American Oversight.

“This particular group often does not notify our office that they accept estimated charges until months after an initial time and cost estimate is sent, making those (time) estimates less accurate and more difficult to honor,” the office said.