Ohio limits fines for destroying public recordsWritten by Associated Press | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ohio Legislature has significantly reduced the civil penalties for improperly destroying public records, drawing fire from newspaper publishers and others who say the change effectively does away with a deterrent that prevented local governments from ridding shelves of controversial items.
A measure signed into law by Gov. John Kasich last week places a $10,000 limit per case on fines an agency can be ordered to pay when sued for destroying records. It also limits attorney fees to $10,000 and requires suits to be brought within five years of a record’s destruction.
There were no such limits previously.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati lawyer, said the modification was prompted by a $1.4 million initial finding against the city of Bucyrus for recording over 911 tapes from the 1990s. The law had said that agencies could be sued for $1,000 per destroyed document, with no maximum. Supporters of the new cap said people requested records they didn’t want but knew were destroyed so they could sue for a large payday.
Opponents of the limits say the law was working as intended and that caps will make most Ohioans unable to afford lawsuits when records are destroyed.
“Destroyed public employee records, evidence of police wrongdoing, evidence of environmental and human health dangers … could all go away for a simple $10,000 fine,” said Trent Dougherty, director of legal affairs for the Ohio Environmental Council.
But Seitz said the legislation protects taxpayers’ pocketbooks from greedy lawyers. If records are destroyed to cover up corruption, officials still could face criminal charges such as obstruction of justice and tampering with records, he noted.
“If anybody thinks that a $10,000 penalty and $10,000 in attorney fees is not a sufficient deterrent, then I would remind them that if the destruction is willful … we have a whole battery of criminal laws that still apply,” he said.
Seitz said the changes have the support of groups representing Ohio townships, counties, other municipalities and school boards and the Ohio Historical Society.
Opposing the changes along with the Environmental Council are The Ohio Newspaper Association, the Ohio Association for Justice and the Ohio Employment Lawyers Association.
Dougherty said the groups believe the change is just the first phase of “a total eclipse of the Sunshine Laws,” which guarantee Ohioans access to government records and meetings.
“This amendment was not about fears of plaintiff’s bankrupting cities through the public records act, nor was it about reigning in lawsuits. It was the first shot in what we fear may be a full assault on public accountability,” he said.
Seitz, a Republican, said the measure was inserted into the bill that established the state’s two-year budget, but is based on a bill that he sponsored with Democratic state Sen. Jason Wilson of Columbiana.
Dougherty said the opposing groups will work to prevent local governments from using the changes as “an excuse to shred” and will consider possible legal action over the insertion of the changes in the unrelated budget bill.
Along with the case in Bucyrus, proponents of the change have pointed to a case pending on appeal before the Ohio Supreme Court in which the city of New Philadelphia was ordered to pay $84,000 for taping over 911 recordings from 1975 to 1995. A number of other communities face similar court battles worth millions in combined penalties.
The Bucyrus case is back in county court after being overturned on appeal, and the man who brought the lawsuit, Ed Davila of Massillon, has said he requested the tapes because he was researching 911 systems when Stark County planned a 911 overhaul. The case is set for a December trial.