Utah Democrats have filed a lawsuit against the Legislature seeking the release of boxes of records related to last year’s redistricting and to have the party’s $5,000 in records fees returned, arguing the Republican-dominated body wrongly denied its claim that the documents are primarily in the public interest and should be disclosed.
“This is the end game of Republicans stalling and trying to cover things up,” Utah Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis said Wednesday. “We hoped the Republicans would stop the foolishness and open their records and open their caucuses, but they won’t without a court order, so here we are. It’s a shame.”
Senate President Michael Waddoups said the lawsuit — filed Tuesday in 3rd District Court — is more about the upcoming election than it is any legitimate probe of whether partisanship steered redistricting.
“There’s nothing sinister going on here,” said Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. “This is a political season, they’re just trying to get some publicity for their party, which is struggling… They just want to make a campaign issue out of it is all this is.”
Democrats initially filed an open-records request last October seeking all email and paper correspondence between legislators, the Republican Party and other organizations or individuals regarding the once-a-decade process of redrawing Utah’s congressional and legislative district boundaries. About a month later they were told that the extensive research and collection of records would cost an estimated $5,000.
The minority party sought a fee waiver, saying the records were “primarily in the public interest,” but that was denied and they paid the $5,000.
Last May, party officials went to pick up the records and were given 5,000 pages and informed that another 11,000 pages were available upon payment of an additional $9,250. Democrats appealed and, in August, top legislative leaders denied the request to waive fees. The Republican Party offered to pay the balance, but Democrats said no one should have to pay for these public documents.
Dabakis said he doesn’t know if there is anything incriminating or embarrassing in the as-yet-undisclosed records but says an important principle is at stake.
“We don’t want to be in court, but the Democratic Party has an obligation to the people of the state of Utah to stop all this secrecy and keeping all these facts away from the public,” he said. “One thing we know for sure is they’re smug and they’re arrogant …[and] it’s just wrong.”
Waddoups said the Democrats have only themselves to blame because they were “sloppy” and “clumsy” in making such a sweeping records request.
“There was $15,000 of labor that went into this [gathering of records],” said Waddoups. “Now they want the taxpayers to bail them out.”
The Senate president said defending against the lawsuit “should be a slam dunk unless there is a judge in the court who just wants to accommodate the Democrat’s ploy for publicity.”
The case has been assigned to 3rd District Judge L.A. Dever, who was appointed to the bench in 1995 by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt.