Paul Huntsman: The public records fight is expensive. How I’m supporting transparency in Utah and beyond

Scope of multistate records gives those in power hope that efforts to cloak the public’s business will be preserved by costly legal battles.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul C. Huntsman is the chair of the nonprofit Tribune board.

The Salt Lake Tribune has aggressively pursued Utah’s coronavirus response. It has reported in real time as state officials outsourced key responsibilities to the private sector, and it has pursued longer-term investigative work.

Our journalists have conducted hundreds of hours of interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of communications and contracts obtained through public records requests. We’ve documented how officials who were connected with business interests prevailed in the state’s overall response, over state agencies and officials tied to public health.

In April 2020, as COVID-19 began to spread in Utah, many national and local news outlets, including The Tribune, reported serious questions about the integrity of the diagnostic test used at TestUtah sites and the lucrative no-bid contracts that led to its selection.

With continued scrutiny, state health officials made changes by August that required TestUtah to stop using the test and to switch to a different lab. And the 2021 Utah Legislature introduced legislation mandating that no-bid emergency contracts last no longer than 30 days in most cases, or 60 days during natural disasters. The measure, HB43, was signed into law in March. It also requires Utah to post the emergency contract online within 14 days of the procurement.

Yet there are things we still don’t know. We don’t know how much some of these private companies received as subcontractors under Nomi Health, which landed a contract from the state to carry out TestUtah. We don’t know who in public office signed off on which contracts.

And the scientific and financial complexity surrounding Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding and diagnostic testing should be reviewed further.

I am a Utah taxpayer who is not amused when the state government and the private sector misuse public funds, some of which I believe went to private gain.

In an effort to learn more about TestUtah and its sister programs in Iowa, Tennessee and Nebraska (aspects of the program were also introduced in Florida and at Brigham Young University-Hawaii), I created a specialized group independent of The Tribune to make public records inquiries in multiple states. I named the LLC that I founded Jittai, a Japanese term, roughly translated to truth and fact.

In Nebraska, Jittai has sued for records related to the makeup of the diagnostics tests it received from Nomi Health. In Utah, it has gone to court to seek public records after requests went to the governor’s office for “an additional layer of review.”

Many COVID-19 actions were taken in the opening months of the pandemic. Some public and private officials were worried about checking the virus’s spread. I believe others saw it as an opportunity for private or political gain.

But the scope of confidential multistate records, held hostage with the threat of endless litigation, gives those in power hope that their efforts to cloak the public’s business will be preserved by costly lawyers and court battles.

That is precisely what happens to many newsrooms our size. The high cost of quality journalism should never become insurmountable by litigation or due to bureaucratic webs. It is a betrayal of the public’s right to know public business.

I underwrote Jittai’s legal costs of data collection. And I will make the findings available, so journalists in multiple states can build reporting based on the public documents we have sought and will seek.

These records will be shared with Tribune Executive Editor Lauren Gustus and her staff, and reviewed again and again. They must be independently verified with sources and via The Tribune’s own public records requests. Jittai is treated as one among hundreds of sources The Tribune relies on to do its reporting.

The newsroom has sole discretion over how every story is reported.

The Tribune relied on Jittai documents as a source of information in a piece on how Co-Diagnostics, a Salt Lake City company that previously focused on mosquito abatement tests, provided COVID-19 tests in Utah and beyond. The accuracy of its tests were part of an inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission, public documents showed. All documents were independently verified through records requests or corroboration via sources.

I believe the public is very forgiving for decisions made by public officials in the face of uncertain outcomes. I also believe the public is much less forgiving when deliberate efforts are made to strategically benefit the few at the expense of the rest.

Thank you, as always, for your support and your readership.