University of Utah can’t charge PETA a $5K ‘prepayment’ for records on lab animal deaths, committee rules

(Tribune file photo) Students file out of the J. Willard Marriott Library on the University of Utah campus in November.

The University of Utah will not be allowed to charge two animal-rights advocacy groups a $5,000 fee before releasing records they requested on the accidental death of a monkey and a lamb during campus laboratory tests.

The Utah State Records Committee voted unanimously last week to waive the fee, calling the amount exorbitant and arbitrary and knocking the U. for offering no explanation or breakdown for why it was so high.

“I think this is a tremendous victory for the animals and transparency,” said Jeremy Beckham, a Utah-based research associate with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, who filed the request along with the U.’s student organization for animal welfare.

The university had argued the request would include thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of hours of work to redact information on intellectual property and unpublished research results.

The school will have 30 days to appeal Thursday’s decision.

PETA and Students for Animal Welfare at the University of Utah requested information in June on two cases involving animal deaths at the institution’s labs: one from December 2015, when a marmoset was killed, and one from April 2017, when a lamb was killed. The groups want to know what the animals’ names were, the approved protocols and where the procedures went wrong, and if any staff were disciplined or terminated after the deaths.

“If there are no consequence for breaking the rules, what’s the point of having the rules?” Beckham asked. “We would like to see these experimenters have their animal-use privileges suspended.”

The requests come after the two groups filed formal complaints against the university in December — resulting in the U.S. Department of Agriculture citing the school this year — on a handful of cases of alleged mistreatment of animals there since 2015. Beckham said PETA wants the documents to show the public “why the university hasn’t been able to correct these problems.”

Maria Hiatt, who leads the student group for animal welfare, said the fee was “a punitive attempt to keep us from getting more information.”

It’s unclear, though, if the school will be able to charge the groups a different fee after its staff works to fill the request. The ruling precludes any prepayment before release.

Beckham believes it waives all fees. One member of the committee reached by phone Tuesday said she wasn’t sure if that was the case. Another committee member agreed with Beckham. And the spokeswoman for the committee said it would be up to the Utah attorney general’s office to interpret the ruling.

The spokeswoman there said she doesn’t know what the waiver will apply to — the $5,000 estimate the U. initially requested or all fees associated with the completion of the request. That’s still being determined.

“What the committee was upset about was that the University of Utah set a flat $5,000 fee without going in and seeing what a reasonable deposit would be,” said records committee member Cindi Mansell. “The University of Utah didn’t want to expend the time and effort to determine what it would really cost.”

The U. declined to comment further Tuesday. But its interim vice president and general counsel Phyllis Vetter said during the hearing last week that the school decided not to waive the fee for PETA, in part, because it’s “a well-funded organization.”

“It is a burdensome request,” she added, “and would generate thousands of pages.”

Vetter also said the university self-reported both animal deaths to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare and has worked to “correct deficiencies.” The school’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, too, which provides internal oversight of research, reviewed the reports. Providing more information to PETA, Vetter suggested, would “duplicate this system of public oversight at the university’s expense.”

But the care and use committee does not hold public meetings and does not provide reports to the public.

“It’s all hidden behind a wall and the accountability process is opaque,” Beckham said. “I was very concerned that if the University of Utah were to get away with this, it would be a tool of obstruction for government agencies all over Utah.”

Andrew Weyrich, the U.’s vice president for research, said the school remains committed to ensuring humane care of its laboratory animals and tries to limit the need to use them at all.

But “practically every therapeutic, every treatment, every medical device, diagnostic tool and cure for humans and animals has been developed with the help of laboratory animal research,” he told the records committee. “And although very rare — and I want to stress very, very rare — sometimes there is an adverse event.”