Utah lawyers volunteer to help Salt Lake Tribune journalists get public records

The pro bono effort comes as government entities have increasingly denied reporters’ requests for public documents.

(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake Tribune office building at the Gateway mall.

Part of a journalist’s job is holding the powerful accountable — including government agencies that are funded by taxpayers.

One way Salt Lake Tribune reporters do that is by filing requests for public records, looking for contracts, emails and text messages, or other reports showing just how that money is spent.

But increasingly, it’s become more common for Tribune reporters to get the same answer when they ask for a public record: No.

That’s why lawyers from five Utah law firms have agreed to donate their time to the nonprofit news organization to help reporters appeal records request denials — and get information that should be public under the law.

These appeals can be time-consuming, where a Tribune journalist, who is not a lawyer, argues against government attorneys about why a record a record should be public. And when the news organization has hired attorneys to represent it, it’s not cheap.

“Tribune journalists filed more than 300 open records requests last year, and the most common response we received was ‘no.’” said executive editor Lauren Gustus. “We requested information that belongs to the public and that, in most cases, was clearly in the public domain. And so we’re thrilled to have additional support from local experts who can help us navigate this important process.”

Michael O’Brien, an attorney with Parsons Behle & Latimer, has represented The Tribune for years. He said having a lawyer in the room during the appeals process levels the playing field for journalists. Every government entity that Tribune reporters try to get records from, O’Brien pointed out, has access to in-house lawyers, city attorneys or help from the attorney general’s office.

“Just like the government has a whole team of lawyers hopefully helping the government comply with [open records laws], but maybe sometimes finding ways not to release documents, the news media needs lawyers from time to time to help unpry that lid of secrecy,” he said, “and bring some fresh air and sunshine into what’s going on in government.”

O’Brien and his team have helped Tribune reporters in recent years gain access to police records, government employment records, and documents from local school districts and colleges, to name a few.

“We’ve helped The Tribune obtain records regarding pretty much every level of government,” he said.

But O’Brien said that as more reporters request records, he’s seen a corresponding increase in records disputes and government entities “dragging their feet” to give up records that are public under the law.

That’s why, he said, the pro bono program is needed.

The five law firms have agreed to donate up to 100 hours a year to represent Tribune reporters in record disputes. The lawyers come from the law firms Wilson Sonsini, Parr Brown Gee & Loveless, Parson Behle & Latimer, Mayer Brown and Foley & Lardner.

Tribune board member and University of Utah law professor Randy Dryer organized the effort.

Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas, who is now with the firm Wilson Sonsini, said this volunteer effort feels like a homecoming for him. Prior to becoming a judge, he worked for The Tribune vetting articles and representing it in First Amendment issues. He felt it was important to step up to help the nonprofit now.

“Frankly, never in the history of our Republic has good, informed investigative journalism been more important,” he said. “And I think it’s critical we all pick up where we can and do our share for it.”

Utah attorneys participating in The Salt Lake Tribune’s pro bono program

Attorneys are from the law firms of Wilson Sonsini, Parr Brown, Parsons Behle, Mayer Brown and Foley & Lardner.

• Deno Himonas

• Jeremy Brodis

• Jeff Hunt

• David Reymann

• Michael O’Brien

• Michael Judd

• Melanie Clark

• Tyler Dever

• Robert Stewart

• Matt Moscon

• Mark Hindley

• Vaughn Pedersen

• Jared Braithwaite