Five years may be a long time, but this newspaper's fight to make public a report alleging misconduct by a Salt Lake County official was worth the wait. Late last week, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously shot down a lower court ruling and said the report should be public.
That victory is about more than merely allowing reporters to look at a report involving sexual harassment. It sets a precedent for how government records are to be treated in Utah, even if they are delicate or embarrassing. "We conclude," the court wrote, "that government records are presumptively public under GRAMA ..." GRAMA is the Government Records Access and Management Act, a Utah law governing how public records are handled.
In other words, the public at-large has scored a huge victory. Its interests, not those of politicians looking to hide in the shadows, must come first. Salt Lake County needed to prove that it was correct when it marked the report in question as classified. It failed to do so, the court ruled.
The case arose in 2003 when Marcia Rice, an employee in the Salt Lake County Clerk's office, sued Chief Deputy Clerk Nick Floros, alleging he helped her get a job for which she was unqualified, then made sexual advances toward her. When she resisted, he retaliated against her.
Eventually, she settled the suit, but the district attorney at the time, David Yocom, launched an investigation into Rice's claims. That resulted in a 23-page report. Yocom sent Rice a summary of the report, which concluded Floros had violated county policy and had committed acts worthy of termination. However, Floros had been allowed to retire just days before the report was finished.
The Deseret Morning News soon began its quest to obtain a copy of the entire report. The district attorney's office fought the newspaper every inch of the way, going so far as to persuade the County Council not to read the report to determine whether it should be released. The county has a blanket policy against releasing such reports, the district attorney argued.
That's not enough, the Utah Supreme Court said.
The report's secrecy seemed to be protecting more than the actions of one public official. Rice had no objections to her name being made public. Most of the other people referenced in the report were done so anonymously. The motive appears to have been political. The district attorney and the county clerk, both elected officials, were Democrats. "The county's reluctance to disclose the contents of the report to the council merely reinforced this perception," the court wrote.
By now, the facts of this case are ancient history. But the Supreme Court has sent a clear message that state law cannot be used to keep allegations of official misconduct under wraps. That makes the future a bit brighter.