Scott McKay, publisher of the conservative news and commentary site The Hayride, filed a lawsuit on Friday against Michael Sawaya, president and general manager of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, for allegedly violating the Louisiana Public Records Act.
The suit claims that in September, McKay sent an extensive list of 24 public records requests to the Convention Center, including months of communications between Convention Center employees, board members, politicians and others, as well as public calendars and contracting records.
The suit claims that “his requests, while significant, remain substantively unresponded to” and that Sawaya failed to provide an estimate for when the request would be complete, which, it alleges, constitutes a violation of the state’s Public Records Law, which gives any citizen of Louisiana the right to review any document in possession of a government body. There are exceptions for certain documents, such as medical and personal tax records.
The governing board of the Convention Center is a public body called the Exhibition Hall Authority. It receives significant public funding, expecting to bring in $66 million in locally generated tax revenue next year. Sawaya is also the executive vice president of the Authority. Neither he nor a Convention Center spokesman immediately responded to a request for comment.
“The public records law means what it says — if the people want to review records of government spending or how decisions are made in positions of public trust those records have to be turned over in a timely fashion,” Scott Sternberg, McKay’s attorney, said in an emailed statement. “The significant delay in producing these public records with no timeline or end in sight made this suit necessary, unfortunately.”
Sternberg also represents The Lens in legal matters.
The suit cites the Louisiana constitution, which states that “no person shall be denied the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents, except in cases established by law.”
It also cites a 1984 ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court that states that the law should be “construed liberally in favor of free and unrestricted access to the records.”
The law generally requires records to be produced immediately if they are not in active use, and within three business days if they are. However, it gives public agencies some flexibility to review records and redact any confidential information, provided that they inform the requester that the review is underway and give a reasonable estimate as to when the public records will be made available. (This type of delay is common with requests for email or text communications.) Public bodies can sometimes refuse to provide documents if a request is so broad that reviewing or separating public records from non-public records would be overly burdensome. However, the public body is still required to explain that in writing to the person who requested the documents. According to the suit, the Convention Center has “failed to assert any privilege” that would keep records from disclosure.
McKay’s records requests are, indeed, lengthy. One of the 24 requests, for example, asks for all communications between Sawaya and 42 people from the beginning of 2018 to September 2019. There are seven more similar requests. While the Convention Center has provided him some records, the suit says, he has not received others, including any of the requested emails.
According to the suit, McKay was told that some of the documents were available on the Convention Center’s website while others would be “available on a rolling basis.” The Lens has received similar responses when submitting public records requests with the Convention Center.