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Indiana House hires attorneys to defend public records suit

June 29, 2015

The Indiana House of Representatives has hired two outside attorneys, who bill an average of nearly $400 an hour, to defend itself from a lawsuit filed over its refusal to provide correspondence over a solar power bill under the state's public records law.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose office would normally defend any lawsuits, approved a request by House Speaker Brian Bosma to hire outside counsel, The Journal Gazette reported. The $440 hourly fee for attorney Geoffrey Slaughter and $345 hourly rate for a second attorney will be paid from the Indiana House budget.

The House is also paying legal fees for Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, as part of the lawsuit, according to a letter of engagement obtained by the newspaper.

The Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, Energy and Policy Institute and Common Cause Indiana sued in April after the House denied an open records request for correspondence between Koch and various utilities regarding a bill about solar power. The House said the Indiana General Assembly is exempt from Indiana's Access to Public Records Act, which the state's public access counselor disagreed with in ruling the Legislature must comply with the state law.

The House refused to comply with a second request that was drafted to more directly specify what records were sought, referencing an exception in the law for work products.

The Indiana Access to Public Records Act provides one exemption for "the work product of individual members and the partisan staffs" of the General Assembly. But there is no definition of "work product," and the Indiana General Assembly has no policy outlining what records are accessible to the public.

Lawmakers in 2001 passed a law that exempted them from the public records law, but then-Gov. Frank O'Bannon vetoed the measure.

The House changed its employee handbook after the legislative session adjourned in April to essentially classify all communications as work product. The move exempts from public records laws documents, notes and other writing or records in any form if they are created, edited or modified by House members or their staff. It includes email, voice mail, text messaging and audio recordings.

Bosma has said that the issue is about protecting constituents' ability to interact with legislators on private issues without fear that it will end up in the media.
 

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