One year later, records request languishes at DHHS
Posted August 25, 2014
Updated August 26, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — More than a year after WRAL News requested correspondence from the head of the state's massive and initially troubled social services system, state health officials have failed to produce a single email.
For months, officials with the state Department of Health and Human Services have attributed the delay to the time it takes to screen sensitive information mixed in the emails of Anthony Vellucci, the head of NC FAST who left earlier this year. But legal experts say it would be hard for those officials to argue they're complying with North Carolina law, which requires agencies to produce public records "as promptly as possible."
"What would be the impediment to getting you some, if not all, of these emails in a year?" said Mike Tadych, a Raleigh attorney who represents media organizations including WRAL News. "It doesn't make sense to me."
When WRAL News originally submitted the request in August 2013 for two months of Vellucci's emails, NC FAST was having problems.
County social services departments had reported occasional complications with the system since early 2013. But a technical glitch in July 2013 severely slowed down case processing, contributing to an estimated 70,000 families forced to wait for food stamp benefits. It took months for state and county staffers to work that backlog down, an effort that intensified in the spring, when the federal government threatened to withdraw $88 million in funding.
Officials at both the state and local level say NC FAST has greatly improved since then.
Throughout those 12 months, DHHS public affairs staff told WRAL News the emails contained confidential patient information, which according to state and federal law the agency must screen before making public.
A month ago, DHHS spokesman Kevin Howell for the first time noted potential security issues with releasing the emails, which he needed to screen through the NC FAST team.
"It comes down to volume at the end of the day," DHHS Communications and Marketing Director Aaron Mullins said Monday. "We do our best to turn things as quickly as possible."
Mullins said he didn't know the approximate volume of the request. When pressed about whether the year-long wait was justified, Mullins said in an email Tuesday that DHHS fulfills "hundreds if not thousands" of requests "to the fullest extent of the law."
A March review of the agency's records request logs showed it fulfilled about 430 requests in 2013.
Mullins also reiterated that the review of the email was necessary to "protect the security of the system and the beneficiaries who use it."
"Mr. Vellucci’s emails were very involved with technical aspects of the IT system that delivers social service benefits at the county level," Mullins said.
In response to follow-up questions, he referred WRAL News back to his statement.
Tadych said that, while it's true confidential information takes time to screen, that wouldn't prevent the agency from providing some emails as they progressed.
Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University, agrees.
"A year is not prompt in any definition of that term, even if you're dealing with a large amount of data," Jones said.
WRAL News isn't the only media organization seeing the slowdown.
Joseph Neff, an investigative reporter at The News & Observer, said he has several pending requests at DHHS with delays "verging on the ridiculous."
"I find it shocking that a public agency takes a year to produce simple requests such as emails," Neff said.
Those delays, he said, can seriously impair public discussion of important issues. In past coverage of the department, including a 2008 series on millions of dollars wasted during mental health reform under then-Gov. Mike Easley, Neff said it took DHHS officials a matter of weeks to return similar records to reporters at the N&O.
"We could not have done that important story responsibly without the professional work by their public affairs staff," Neff said. "The records may have embarrassed those running the department, but they were produced, and in the long run, it had a very positive effect on the department and the state of North Carolina."
A March review of the agency's records request logs showed it took DHHS 38 days on average to fulfill requests in 2013.
The request for Vellucci's emails was one of the oldest, along with another WRAL News request from early August 2013 that remains only partially filled.
Wait times like those, Tadych said, are difficult to justify.
"If the administration wants to be transparent, it's hard to understand how this sort of thing is demonstrative of that transparency," he said.