This item is one in an occasional series called “Broken Records” detailing government’s inability to comply with the state’s Public Records Act.
By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer
The Lens first sought a copy of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s entire budget for 2009, down to the general ledger level, in a public records request sent on July 21.
Six months later, we still don’t have the documents. A general-ledger level accounting would provide every instance of income and spending for the agency.
At first, our request was an exercise in semantics, but eventually we were promised the documents.
On July 23, Gusman’s attorney, Craig Frosch of law firm Usry, Weeks & Matthews, pointed to the 2009 Legislative Auditor’s Report as responsive to the request. We wrote back on July 25, saying we’d requested a full accounting, not a high-level overview of it.
On July 26, Frosch responded: “In a follow-up conversation after speaking with a person within financial division of the sheriff’s office, I indicated my understanding that the ‘budget’ would be only an estimate of what would be spent during the year, while the sheriff’s annual financial report for 2009 shows the actual revenues realized and expenditures made during the year.”
So we responded on Aug. 27, requesting a copy of Gusman’s “spending plan” or “spending estimate” for 2009. On Sept. 15, Frosch wrote, “no such record exists.”
In an interview on Sept. 17, Gusman told The Lens that his office has a detailed general ledger level budget maintained in “mostly electronic” form. Gusman told us he would give us the budget, and he would confer with staff about the form in which he would supply it. Gusman’s spokesman, Marc Ehrhardt, who was also present, agreed that such a budget is a public record.
We wrote to Frosch that it was frustrating to have first sought the budget in July, to be effectively told that such a thing did not exist, and then learn that it does in fact exist.
On Sept. 28, Frosch wrote that he had only mentioned a spending estimate “in the context of differentiating that type of document from a record of actual expenditures in an effort to clarify” what we were looking for.
“We were under the impression from our conversations that Mr. Davis was only interested in how the money was being spent, which in our view made the existence or non-existence of a budget as a spending estimate a non-issue,” Frosch wrote.
Frosch wrote that the request was ambiguous and broad in scope. That said, “If Mr. Davis wants to inspect and/or obtain a copy of the Sheriff’s Office general ledger, then that is all he need say,” Frosch wrote.
We wrote back, saying so.
Frosch responded, writing: “the general ledger report is quite large (well over seven thousand pages).”
It would need to be redacted for confidential medical information, tax information, and other personal information before being released, Frosch wrote. Frosch also suggested that The Lens might need to pay overtime for the redaction of the documents.
We wrote back on Oct. 18, saying that there’s nothing in Louisiana public records law that lets public agencies charge overtime for redaction of documents. The sheriff’s office agreed to begin redacting the documents on its own time, estimating that the process would be completed, at the outside, by Dec. 28.
Frosch responded to a progress check on Jan. 4: “I have not yet received a progress report on the ledger review phase. As soon as we are able to get word as to where the Sheriff’s Office is in the process and what is left to be done, we will let you know. We will stay on this as best we can to get you information as soon as we can within the framework that exists under the Public Records Act. We appreciate your patience and consideration in these regards.”
We have heard nothing since then.