Politics & Government

House panel approves changes to make some spending records secret

FRANKFORT — A House panel on Thursday voted to change the Kentucky Open Records Act to make private the records of some organizations doing business with government.

Presently, any organization that gets at least 25 percent of its revenue from local or state government must share some records under the act, which is meant to bring transparency to public spending.

But House Bill 496, which proceeds to the full House, would exempt from the 25 percent requirement any money awarded to organizations through a competitive and public procurement process.

The sponsor, Rep. Johnny Bell, told lawmakers the change is needed because someone recently started sending "shotgun letters" to private companies that do business with the state, such as highway contractors, citing the Open Records Act and demanding to see their financial records.

Such an interpretation of the act is "overly broad" and burdens private companies to respond, said Bell, D-Glasgow. As a rule, he said, open records requests are submitted to the government that gives money to private companies, not to the companies.

Later, Bell said he could not name any companies that have been ordered by the attorney general or a court to release records because of the recent letters.

"It's just the apprehension, the feeling that private information, even cellphone records, you could have to turn them over," Bell said. "It's people apprehending what could come."

Prentice Harvey, lobbyist for the Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors, told lawmakers that up to 20 companies have received open records letters in recent months. Hiring a lawyer to respond can cost thousands of dollars, Harvey said.

The House State Government Committee voted 21-to-1 to approve the bill. Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, cast the "No" vote. Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said he worried about "unintended consequences," but he voted for the bill.

In an interview after the hearing ended, Bell acknowledged he knows who is sending the "shotgun letters": John Rogers, who is, like Bell, a Glasgow lawyer. But Bell said he hasn't asked his neighbor about the open records letters.

"I'm sure he has his reasons," Bell said.

Rogers did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

One of the companies that Rogers has asked for records, Hinkle Contracting Co. of Paris, has alleged in a letter to Attorney General Jack Conway that Rogers is working on behalf of a company called Utility Management Group.

UMG is paid more than $11.6 million a year to manage Pike County's water and sewer systems. Conway's office ruled in September that UMG is a public entity under the Open Records Act and must disclose spending information. UMG is appealing in Pike Circuit Court to keep its spending records confidential.

Rogers' open records requests "are intended to goad other contractors to support UMG in the Pike circuit litigation," Buckner Hinkle Jr., who represents Hinkle Contracting, said in a recent interview.

Bell said he is not involved with UMG, and his bill is not intended to protect UMG from public disclosure.

"There is no legislative intent to protect UMG or any other entity that's spending taxpayer dollars on public business," Bell said.

The Kentucky Press Association does not oppose an amended version of Bell's bill because it includes two wording changes that fine-tune its intent, executive director David Thompson told the committee. Bell offered the amended version Thursday.

The bill now states that the Open Records Act covers "any body which, within any fiscal year, derives at least 25 percent of its funds expended by it in the Commonwealth of Kentucky from state or local authority funds. However, any funds derived from a state or local authority in compensation for goods or services that are provided by a contract obtained through a competitive, public procurement process shall not be included in the determination of whether a body is a public agency under this subsection."

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