Governor's office, other agencies lag in test of public records responses

Posted March 19, 2015

John Skvarla, the former secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who took the helm of the commerce department this year, listens to Gov. Pat McCrory speak at a news conference at the governor's mansion on Jan. 21, 2014. (Kelly Hinchcliffe/WRAL)

— More than a month after WRAL News asked 18 of North Carolina's top government leaders for their travel records, two agencies have yet to provide a single document showing where the governor and lieutenant governor went in 2014.

The requests were part of an experiment to see how quickly and thoroughly the state’s top agencies respond to public information requests. The project was timed for Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Sunshine Center, Sunshine Day Sunshine Week coverage

Some agencies responded quickly, providing hundreds of pages of detailed travel records, including copies of hotel bills, restaurant receipts, plane tickets, emails and credit card statements. Others provided very little information or nothing at all.

Slow responses, no responses

During the month-long experiment, in which the agencies were not told they were being tested, differences began to emerge about how agencies keep travel records and what information they track. WRAL also noted differences in how quickly – or slowly, in some cases – agencies responded to the requests.

Gov. Pat McCrory's office was the least responsive during the experiment. Communications Director Josh Ellis finally responded to WRAL's request for travel records three days later – after WRAL sent a follow-up email – saying he “did overlook this one.” He asked the reporter to copy the governor’s entire press team in the future “so it will guarantee that it’s in everyone’s inbox.”

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WRAL sent three more follow-up emails after that – on Feb. 23, March 5 and March 9 – to check on the status of the request. No one from the governor’s office responded.

Finally, on March 11, WRAL sent Ellis and the governor’s press team a fourth follow-up email, this time explaining that the request was part of a Sunshine Week project and that many other state agencies had already provided records, some of which were very detailed. Ellis responded 34 minutes later.

“We are still working on this request. As I’m sure you’re aware, your request is not the only one,” he wrote.

When asked how many requests were ahead of WRAL’s and when the travel records might be ready, Ellis did not respond.

WRAL also failed to get a single travel record for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. After saying the records would be ready in a week, a spokesperson for Forest emailed five days later to say that the Department of Public Safety had the records.

"All travel is documented and reported through the State Trooper Executive Detail Division out of Department of Public Safety," Forest's press secretary, Jamey Falkenbury, wrote. "Therefore they are the custodians of all the records and have asked that you make the request through their department."

A month after requesting those records from DPS, WRAL still hasn't received anything.

Public records See how NC leaders travel

One of the slowest responses came from Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz, whose office sent her travel records on Wednesday – 37 days after WRAL's initial request.

Until March 12 – more than a month after WRAL's initial request – the Department of Commerce had also failed to provide a single record on former Secretary Sharon Decker's travel in 2014. On March 9, commerce spokesperson Kim Genardo said in an email they would produce the records "in a timely fashion," yet offered no firm date.

But six hours after a reporter told Genardo the request was part of a test of response times, she produced 100 pages of records by email. When asked if learning about the test of record responses had any impact on the agency's timing, Genardo said "absolutely not."

Most agencies didn't wait nearly as long.

Agency appreciates 'a pat on the back'

One of the fastest initial responses came from Vanessa Jeter, communication director for state Superintendent June Atkinson. One minute after receiving WRAL’s public records request by email, Jeter called the reporter. She then sent a follow-up email later that day to acknowledge she had received the request and was “pulling the items you require.”

On Feb. 24, 15 days after receiving the request, Jeter provided WRAL with 89 pages of Atkinson’s travel records, including reimbursement and travel authorization forms, hotel and parking receipts and credit card statements.

Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin’s office was even faster at retrieving records. Kerry Hall, his director of public information, provided 117 pages of records within nine days.

“He has a very organized administrative assistant,” Hall said. “Commissioner Goodwin thinks transparency is a priority.”

“We lost some days with the snow and probably could have gotten it to you faster,” she added. “We consider it a high priority to respond to the public.”

Two of the governor's cabinet agencies, the departments of administration and revenue, delivered records within 10 days.

Trevor Johnson, spokesperson for the Department of Revenue, said he wasn't surprised that his agency was one of the first to provide records, given that Secretary Lyons Gray didn't travel much in 2014. But he said they've also developed a good system to respond to taxpayers seeking information that is often protected by state law.

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"We're able to identify pretty quickly whether the data, once we get it, is able to be released," Johnson said.

Another three agencies in the independently elected Council of State – the departments of insurance and labor as well as the auditor's office – also responded in that 10-day timeframe.

Attorney General Roy Cooper's office responded in 11 days.

George Jeter, director of communications for Secretary of State Elaine Marshall’s office, provided some of the most detailed records – 200 pages within 18 days. Jeter even purchased a thumb drive with his own money to provide the records to a WRAL reporter – something he says he does often due to budget cuts in his department.

The secretary of state’s office was also the only one that cited the legal reasons for redacting information, such as personal credit card numbers, which WRAL had requested each agency do.

When told his office was one of the more responsive ones, Jeter said he appreciated “a pat on the back instead of a slap on the back.”

Treasurer Janet Cowell's office provided the most records of any agency – 743 pages. Initially, however, her office only provided a four-page spreadsheet with a list of cities she visited, the events and dates. After WRAL questioned the small number of records, which did not include any receipts, her office provided more than 700 pages of documents five days later.

Despite the size of some of the responses from some agencies, only one signaled its intention to charge a fee for the document retrieval.

At the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, spokesperson Drew Elliot billed WRAL News 75 cents for copying 15 pages of records. Elliot said he provided another 85 pages detailing Skvarla's travel prior to 2014, as well as travel for former DENR Secretary Dee Freeman, for context, free of charge.

When a reporter arrived to pick them up, the front desk attendant handed them over in an envelope without charging.

The back of the envelope requested that WRAL "remit payment to public affairs."

"Don’t worry about the charge for now," Elliot wrote in a follow-up email.

How agencies responded

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  • Joseph Shepard Mar 19, 2015
    user avatar

    Have to wonder how closely the records of Democratic officials would have been checked
    were this "Sunshine"" thing applicable...I imagine not many..a good look up WRAL's skirts to see just how they operate..

  • Joseph Shepard Mar 19, 2015
    user avatar

    Have to wonder how closely the records of Democratic officials would have been checked
    were this "Sunshine"" thing applicable...I imagine not many..a good look up WRAL's skirts to see just how they operate..

  • Linzie Washington Mar 19, 2015
    user avatar

    Soooo, the records showed no scandals and we are supposed to be upset because the response time was not as quick as it could have been. Meanwhile WRAL praises our federal government who often takes YEARS to respond (if at all) and just this week during "Sunshine Week", the White House exempted itself from records requests.