So the Utah attorney general’s office has asked a judge to overturn a unanimous State Records Committee order that it release its opinion on Gov. Gary Herbert’s process for a special congressional election to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
The attorney general’s office argues that a records committee member writes a column for The Salt Lake Tribune, which is the party seeking release of the opinion, and that poses at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Well, as the late Ronald Reagan might say: “There you go again.”
The attorney general’s office, under the leadership of Sean Reyes, is arguably the least transparent, most secretive Utah government agency in recent memory.
The office has routinely rejected public records requests from reporters and has gone to court before to reverse a records committee decision ordering the release of documents.
The latest appeal concerns State Records Committee member Holly Richardson, who writes a weekly column for The Tribune as an independent contractor, not as an employee, as the attorney general’s office asserts in its appeal.
What’s interesting is that the attorney general did not raise an objection when Richardson participated in the hearing. And the order that Richardson signed was written by Assistant Attorney General Paul Tonks. Five other committee members, besides Richardson, agreed that the opinion should be released.
But if the objection to Richardson is because of her column and a possible conflict, here are some other ideas the attorney general might ponder to keep secret a legal opinion about the proper method of having a special congressional election to fill an open seat:
Richardson was once a member of the Utah Legislature, which also wants the release of the attorney general’s opinion because legislative leaders have argued they should have been allowed to create a statute governing the special election rather than the governor determining the process unilaterally.
So having been a member of the body that also is fighting the attorney general for release of the document, there is another appearance of a conflict.
And get this. Richardson has had a career as a midwife, a profession that is regulated by a state agency that is advised by the attorney general’s office.
In addition, Richardson is the mother of adopted children, many from other countries, and Reyes was an early and avid supporter of Donald Trump, even thinking he might get a job at one point with the Trump administration, and the president, as we all know, has shown an aversion to immigrants coming from various countries.
The absurdity of the attorney general office’s desperate motion to prevent its legal opinion on an important matter from being made public is affirmed by the office’s constant attempts at secrecy and diffusion.
Reyes’ office even earned the “Black Hole Award” last year from Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. That award is given to “an agency that demonstrates significant resistance to transparency and disregard for public information laws,” according to SPJ’s news release at the time.
It noted that, in 2015, Reyes’ office fought to prevent the release of documents the State Records Committee ordered it to produce concerning allegations that Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel choked a man who was handcuffed. The sheriff is the son of powerful Republican Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.
The attorney general also refused to provide records of a closed investigation into San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, also a Republican and a friend of Mike Noel.
When the appeal went to the State Records Committee, the attorney general’s office asked the panel to close the hearing and to be allowed to file its briefs under seal, an unprecedented request that was denied.
The SPJ release also noted that the attorney general’s office asserted to have a backlog of open-records requests. Journalists complained that it was taking the office months just to provide a denial.
That’s why I saw comic irony last year when I wrote a column about Reyes possibly messing up an investigation of an alleged child pornography collector by appearing to take selfies with his cellphone at the crime scene that prosecutors feared would taint the evidence. They declined to go ahead with the case because of those worries.
When I asked Reyes’ office about the incident, basing it on a police report I obtained through a records request from the West Valley City Police Department, his staffers went to my editors to try to kill the column.
Reyes’ office wanted us to wait and file a records request with attorney general’s office for its report.
Well, this time it was the newspaper’s turn to deny a request. The column ran.
As to the current appeal of the State Records Committee order to release the opinion on the special congressional election, the attorney general’s office has cited attorney-client privilege because Herbert asked that the opinion, requested by the Legislature, not be released.
That would suggest that the opinion was not in Herbert’s favor, which further hints that the process used to elect John Curtis as our newest congressman may not have been proper — at least in the eyes of the attorney general’s office.
If that is the case, the public absolutely has a right and a need to know that.
Correction: Nov. 28, 11:15 a.m. • The Legislature requested the Utah attorney general’s office draft an opinion on the special congressional election. An earlier version misstated who sought the opinion.