We need to know where secrets lie. The old Dylan lines still work. Only this time, the battle outside raging pits the lobbyists, the judges and the politicians against Common Cause, the Ethics Commission, Operation Clean Government and this newspaper. But the times are not "a-changin'."
Rather, the powered are tightening their grip on the public's business. They've got almost as much control today as they did in the late '80s, before the banking crisis. They've neutralized the Ethics Commission. They've all but beaten back Common Cause and Operation Clean Government. All that's left is their old nemisis -- The Providence Journal. And though the Constitution protects the newspaper from direct assault, the courts and the politicians can restrict the newspaper's access to the information it needs to be society's critic, scold and watchdog. That's what the government has done.
The chief justice and then the Almond administration have withheld traffic court files. The drug court is closed to the press. And now, the Supreme Court is hearing a case to prevent us from seeing financial records of the Convention Center Authority. Oh, the enemies of access don't put it like that. These attacks on the public's right to know are generally clothed in lofty disguises. They often claim they're acting to protect people's privacy. Sometimes, they say they need to protect "proprietary business information" -- the Convention Center's defense.
Here's the travel: Five years ago, Mike Stanton, a Journal reporter, asked the authority to give him a list of complimentary rooms given away at The Providence Westin, which is owned by the taxpayers. Stanton also asked for the financial records of two hotel functions, along with information about "any other banquets that have received discounts." The Convention Center Authority refused, citing exemptions to the state's open-records law. A Superior Court judge agreed with the authority, adding that she didn't see how the authority could give The Journal what it wanted without disclosing sensitive business secrets. The Journal appealed. And in briefs filed with the Supreme Court, the newspaper argued that the authority is required to operate "with the greatest public benefit at the least public cost." Further, the newspaper said, the law requires the Convention Center Authority to open its records to the public. At a hearing two weeks ago, the justices didn't seem to buy those arguments. Nor did they like the idea of The Journal's knowing who got discounts at the Westin.
Surpeme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, wife of lobbyist extraordinaire Robert Goldberg, for example, said she was alarmed that The Journal could find out the details of her niece's wedding at the Westin. But what about the interests of the taxpayers? The Convention Center Authority's lawyer told the justices that the public had nothing to worry about. Outside auditors go over the books annually. Plus, said the lawyer, David Wollin, the state auditor general, keeps an eye on things by sending a representative to authority meetings. That might have reassured the justices. It didn't reassure us. And there's no reason for the public to be reassured, either. The Convention Center can argue all it wants that it has to operate like a private business. But it isn't one.
The Convention Center and The Providence Westin are owned by the taxpayers, and, as those audits show, the authority couldn't pay its bills without about $20 million a year from the taxpayers. Don't forget, the taxpayers never voted for this. Back before the bonds were sold, the consultants and the pro-Convention Center politicians promised that revenues would cover all expenses. Well, those revenues turned out to include a lease payment from the state. Last year, that lease payment from the state amounted to 35 percent of the authority's income. The Convention Center was built on a lie and now is fighting to protect its secrets.
Who's going to check if the politicians, the judges and the
lobbyists are pressing the authority for free rooms and cheap
banquets? The outside auditors? The auditor general? Not in
this lifetime. The outside auditors work for the authority. The
auditor general works for the speaker of the House. They're not
going to ask tough questions. But we are. So yes, Justice Goldberg,
we do want to know what kind of deal your niece got for her
wedding. And much more.
Peter Phipps is deputy managing editor of The Providence Journal. You can reach him by phone, at 401-277-7443 , or by e-mail, at [email protected]