Envision Ogden open records fight stalls in court
More than a year has passed since Ogden activist Dan Schroeder filed a Government Records Access and Management Act request with the Utah Attorney General's Office seeking documents connected to an alleged campaign finance scandal involving former Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey.
Schroeder hoped that a 3rd District Court judge on Thursday would order the A.G.'s Office to release investigative files related to Godfrey's now defunct Envision Ogden organization, which came under fire in 2009 when allegations of money laundering and fraud involving the group surfaced. But Schroeder's crusade to learn more about the inner workings of Envision Ogden stalled, when Judge Keith Kelly ruled he didn't have enough information to decide whether files previously withheld from Schroeder should now be made public.
The decision marks the latest legal maneuver in a complicated case that started when Godfrey formed Envision Ogden in 2007, touting it as a non-profit organization that would work toward bringing outdoor businesses to the Ogden area.
The group raised more than $80,000 at fundraisers, where donors including banks, hospitals, and the Ogden-Weber Chamber of Commerce forked over money to what seemed like a great cause. But donors would later learn they'd been misinformed about where their money went: Some paid for political fundraisers for city council members and Godfrey's reelection campaign. Money was also donated to the Republican Party.
The scenario led the A.G.'s Office to launch an investigation into Envision Ogden's operations in 2009. The A.G.'s Office subpoenaed the organization's bank records during its probe, but eventually closed the case in March 2011 without filing criminal charges.
Schroeder wanted to know more about the case and filed a GRAMA request asking for the A.G.'s Office for its complete investigative file on Envision Ogden. Schroeder received some documents, but others were withheld leading him to bring his fight for information to the Utah State Records Committee, and now, to the courts.
At issue are three items: a Post-It note with phone numbers and notes, a Quicken financial summary created by a investigator employed by the A.G.'s office and close to 300 bank records that the A.G.'s Office has labeled as attorney documents that should be considered privileged information.
During oral arguments about the issue in Kelly's courtroom on Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Patrick Nolan told the judge that recent changes to the GRAMA law may prevent the documents from being released.
"Things have changed to GRAMA since litigation began," said Nolan.
Schroeder argued the records he wants aren't protected and should be released. He said he believes the items released would reveal to the public who operated Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate, a nonregistered entity that received more than $20,000 in funds from Envision Ogden and then made sizable donations to the city council campaigns of Blain Johnson and Royal Eccles.
Kelly said he didn't have factual information needed to make a decision and requested the two parties come back for another hearing on Oct. 19.
The judge, however, agreed with Schroeder on one aspect of the case: The length of time it is taking to resolve his GRAMA request, which has jumped through various stages of appeal before finally reaching the court.
"It shouldn't take this long to decide an appeal from a GRAMA decision," Kelly said.
The Utah State Records Committee in August 2011 ordered the A.G.'s Office to release some of the records it has withheld from Schroeder, but the A.G.'s Office appealed the committee's decision. Schroeder filed his own appeal, which brought the two parties to Kelly's courtroom for arguments on Thursday.
Schroeder said following Thursday's hearing that he's frustrated with the process, but hopeful he will prevail in the case.
"The Attorney General's office drug their feet and drug their feet and didn't ever tell us what they found out," Schroeder said outside of court. "I think people have the right to know [what happened with Envision Ogden]."