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Inmate challenges state law he says was meant as retaliation against whistleblowers

A 2017 law blocking prisoner requests passed after inmate uncovered fraud.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) William Sherratt was known as a "frequent filer" when it came to GRAMA requests. He is challenging a law that blocks inmates from filing some records requests.

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah law SB 242, passed in 2017, put a stop to the work of Reginald Williams. Williams, an inmate in the state prison, was known for filing dozens of Government Records Access and Management Act requests, or GRAMAs, every year. The behind-the-bars gadfly often sought information not about his own case but about the inner workings of the Utah Department of Corrections.

In the late 2000s, Williams used GRAMAs to find evidence that Corrections, the Utah Attorney General’s Office and other state agencies had misused funding from the American Reinvestment Act, passed during the Obama administration, to help states deal with the fallout of the 2009 recession. Through private counsel in 2015, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state over the misuse of stimulus funding.

That suit was working through the legal system when Utah curbed inmates’ ability to file GRAMAs that were not about their own records and limited them to five requests a year.

Williams’ whistleblower lawsuit, however, kept moving along, triggering a federal investigation into the fraud allegations and leading the state of Utah to settle with the federal government for $1.5 million in 2022. Williams could collect a reward based on a percentage of the money recovered by the federal government.

William Sherratt, another inmate who is a “frequent filer,” has sued the state over the GRAMA law as being unconstitutional. When Sherratt tried to research decisions issued by the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, he was blocked by SB 242.

Sherratt just finished over two decades in prison for a conviction for rape and has maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration and feels the state has worked against him that entire time, especially with the GRAMA law blocking inmates.

“That’s how I feel when I read this stuff,” Sherratt said of his years of filings, letters to the Governor’s Office, GRAMA requests and GRAMA denials. “Someone’s digging a knife in and hitting the same wound over and over again.”

‘Frequent filers’

In the committee hearing on SB 242, Amanda Montague, an assistant attorney general representing Corrections, told the committee how an internal audit found that 95% of inmates who filed GRAMAs only filed a few a year while “we have 10 offenders who will request 20 or hundreds even in a year.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, would “not substantially impact 95% of our inmates — it will only try to stop these really abusive requests,” Montague said.

Then-Deputy Director of Corrections Mike Haddon echoed the point, saying the agency was fielding over 5,000 GRAMA requests a year and the department needed to halt abuse of the process by the “frequent filers.”

The offices of Corrections and the attorney general’s office were included in Williams’ lawsuit for defrauding taxpayers through abuse of the Obama-era stimulus funding. Haddon would be a named defendant in the government’s lawsuit brought against the state several years later.

Williams’ suit was initially pushed by private counsel in 2015 before the federal government eventually took over and filed an amended complaint against Utah on Sept. 24, 2021, based on Williams’ GRAMA research. The complaint stated how recipients of the federal grants, like Corrections and the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, were not allowed to use the federal stimulus funds to “supplant” their existing budgets. The funds were meant to bring on new employees and add new value to the state criminal justice programs.

“The Office of the Attorney General moved existing employees into grant-funded positions but did not immediately fill the vacated positions with new hires; or it used grant funds to pay existing employee salaries while misrepresenting that the employees’ positions would be, or were, eliminated by budget cuts,” the complaint states.

While the state has agreed to settle with the federal government for $1.5 million, a separate payment to Williams as the whistleblower has not yet been decided.

Williams’ jailhouse discovery of the misuse of federal funds will likely never happen again because inmates are now strictly forbidden from making GRAMA requests unrelated to their cases.

In the February 2017 committee hearing, when asked about the genesis of the bill, Bramble said the bill needed to pass or the Legislature needed to fund more records officers at taxpayer expense.

“This was brought forward by the attorney general’s office,” Bramble told the committee. “It was either we do this bill or we request additional [full-time employees] just to deal with GRAMA.”

But data doesn’t indicate a significant reduction in GRAMA requests since the bill’s passage. In 2016 Corrections fielded 3,554 requests. In 2022 it had nearly doubled to 6,640. At the committee hearing, Haddon said his agency had taken in 22,600 requests between 2011 and 2016, an average of 3,767 a year, but from 2017 to 2022, the average per year had gone up to 5,158.

In a statement, attorney general spokesperson Rich Piatt said the office could not comment on the ongoing lawsuit over the constitutionality of SB242. But he did state the office did not need to hire new employees to deal with added GRAMA requests since 2017.

‘Those willing to lie …’

As an inmate serving time for rape, Sherratt knew a key to getting paroled would be the successful completion of Correction’s Sex Offender Treatment Program. There was just one problem, he said. The Board of Pardons and Parole would not recommend his entry into the program until he admitted guilt for his crime, something he refused to do.

Sherratt used GRAMA to start requesting information about the sentencing matrix, or official guidelines for determining the release of inmates. He claims his research, letters he wrote and advocacy he undertook helped lead to a 2016 audit that found the Board’s sentencing decisions were vague and had, over the past decade, led to a 28% increase in the length of prison stays while not being aware if the long prison stays “positively affected public safety, reduced recidivism, or simply cost taxpayers more money.”

He began challenging Corrections again after a California court decision found that the state could not force inmates to admit guilt to be accepted into sex offender programs necessary for their qualification for parole.

For years he wrote the state about the matter. In January 2020, he wrote to the Governor’s Office explaining the problem, noting that the restriction didn’t help as offenders would simply lie to admit guilt and that the requirement, along with a lack of treatment programs, was unnecessarily keeping him and others behind bars.

He noted how he was told he would initially be incarcerated for five and a half years.

“I have been here 19 and a half years because you refuse to allow me completion of your program, not because I won’t take it, but because you won’t give it,” his letter stated. This, he said, was all because he would not admit guilt or at the least, fake a confession.

“Those willing to lie get [treatment] routinely,” he stated.

In a Jan. 29, 2020, response, interim Director David Loden explained some of the reasoning behind his inability to get into treatment and said the treatment was limited and Corrections relied on the Board of Pardons’ recommendations to prioritize treatment. But there was a consolation.

“As of 2019, we changed our practice of requiring an individual to admit guilt. New research suggests if an individual denies their sex crime, their risk to reoffend doesn’t increase. With this new knowledge we changed our practices.”

Sherratt soon got into his treatment, completed it and in late 2022, was finally paroled. But in 2019, he requested data from the Board of Pardons on how often it might still be requiring other inmates to admit guilt in order to enter treatment in violation of Correction’s new policies. He was denied any data based on the 2017 law since the GRAMA was not about himself.

Then, in 2022, he sued, challenging the law’s constitutionality.

Moot

Patrick Sullivan, an Iowa native recently released from the Central Utah Correctional Facility, is familiar with GRAMA restrictions. In 2022 he was denied records related to his own case, a charge of identity fraud he said he was coerced into pleading guilty to. When he requested emails from five different employees of the Sanpete County prosecutor’s office, the office picked five random emails and then considered each one a separate request so that he could not make any other GRAMA requests that year, he said.

Now out of prison, he is volunteering with multiple prison reform groups and filing GRAMAs like a free man.

Sullivan said some inmates do abuse GRAMA. But he questioned why policymakers didn’t change the fees for inmates instead of blocking them completely. Most inmates are granted GRAMAs for free because they don’t have any money, so wouldn’t it be better to charge a standard fee after their fifth request instead of just denying them the ability to file any more GRAMAs, he asks?

Not only can GRAMA be used to uncover corruption, but he said most people would admit that some inmates have been wrongly convicted and need GRAMA to help make their case.

“GRAMA is probably the most helpful tool an incarcerated individual has to uncover things that could help prove his or her innocence,” Sullivan said.

The law change did allow that an inmate’s attorney would not be restricted in filing GRAMAs, but Sullivan said that’s a worthless concession.

“The little loophole that your attorney isn’t limited? That’s cool, but do you know how overwhelmed the public defender system is? Does the Legislature understand that a lot of attorneys — even paid attorneys — don’t have time to file GRAMA requests, file appeals and go to hearings in front of the State Records Committee all to uncover something that might help their client?” he said.

Sherratt’s legal argument is based on the value of the public’s right to know. His case filed in 2019 was delayed for years, and it wasn’t until April 2022 the Attorney General’s Office filed a motion to dismiss his claim as improper. On June 13, 2022, 3rd District Judge Matthew Bates denied the state’s motion, allowing the case to proceed. The state has argued that Sherratt lacks standing to sue over the law because he has been released from prison and is therefore no longer affected by the law.

Sherratt is hopeful the challenge will continue. He argues that the state law is based on the federal Freedom of Information Act, which is bolstered by case law that holds the only restriction on record requests should truly relate to whether or not the request is in the public’s interest.

“It doesn’t matter what the request is for or who it’s against,” Sherratt said in a recent interview. If the records show corruption or wrongdoing by public agencies, then they should not be restricted.

“Is that not in the public interest?” he asked.