If there’s one thing Gov. John R. Kasich dislikes maybe more than anything else, especially now that he’s trying to raise his visibility and chances to be among the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016, it’s being forced to reveal public records that some critics say will demonstrate his administration’s disdain for open government, an attitude that hasn’t played well with Ohio media and won’t bode well with Beltway media.
It’s no secret that Gov. Kasich isn’t a big fan of open government, as numerous attempts by his Administration to delay or deny such records since he first assumed office in 2011 show.
The news Tuesday that NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation filed an amended mandamus action in the Ohio Supreme Court asking that the Court order the Ohio Department of Health to produce public records revealing the extent to which the department has been working with the special-interest group Ohio Right to Life to restrict Ohio women’s access to reproductive health care likely didn’t bring smiles to the second-term governor or his administration.
Triggering this filing today is the Ohio Health Department’s refusal to produce its communications with the special-interest group. “We are concerned about the impact and influence of special-interest groups, including Ohio Right to Life, on Health Department officials and employees,” Kellie Copeland, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation, said in a media release. ODH has refused to comply with an October 27, 2014 NARAL request for records of phone and email communications between Right to Life and Department officials or employees. The department regulates many types of health-care facilities including abortion clinics and has issued regulations that impact the ability of abortion clinics and providers to operate, thus limiting women’s freedom to effectuate their constitutionally guaranteed reproductive-health rights by restricting their access to safe medical care.
The court referred this case to mediation under S.Ct.Prac.R. 19.01, and stays all filing deadlines for this case until further order of this court. The court said it will not issue any decision on the merits of this case until mediation has concluded.
NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation supports and protects, as a fundamental right and value, a woman’s freedom to make personal decisions regarding a full range of reproductive choices including preventing unintended pregnancies, bearing healthy children, and choosing safe, legal abortion. To ferret out this influence, the Foundation’s counsel submitted a written public-records request to the department on October 27, 2014. The request sought evidence of phone and email communications between department personnel and Ohio Right to Life.
The first category requested all department landline and cellphone records for the previous year reflecting communications with certain specified Ohio Right to Life telephone numbers. (The phone numbers are found on Ohio Right to Life’s website.) The request allowed that if the department could not provide the specific telephone records, the department instead should produce telephone records for all Department phone lines (leaving the Foundation to comb through the records to locate the specific numbers of interest).
The second category requested all email communications for the previous two years between any department employee and any individual with an email address ending in “@ohiolife.org” “related to the subject matter of regulating abortion clinics or ambulatory surgical facilities that provide abortions.” Despite the targeted nature of these requests, the department repeatedly refused to produce the requested records. The department claimed the requests were too broad and did not provide enough information to allow the department to locate the records sought.
The Foundation repeatedly made clear—including in the original request—that the Foundation seeks records “evidencing communications between the special-interest group Ohio Right to Life and ODH officials or employees.” Yet the Ohio Department of Health has persisted in its insistence that it cannot discern what is being requested and that, based on how the department has chosen to organize its records, it is simply too hard to find what the Foundation seeks.
The department has also ignored requests from the Foundation’s counsel to search for requested records on employees’ personal phones and other devices (which are covered by the Public Records Act when official business is being conducted). The department has never suggested that the requested communications do not exist, or that any exception to the Public Records Act exempts the records from disclosure. Regardless of how the department organizes its phone and email records, it should be able to comply with the Foundation’s public-records request.
As of today, the Foundation’s simple and straightforward public-records request to the department—for the types of documents routinely obtained by citizens on other subjects—has been outstanding for 71 days.
Subodh Chandra, lead counsel for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation, said, “By refusing to produce emails and phone records that would reveal Ohio Right to Life’s influence over the Health Department—all the while taking steps to constrict women’s right to reproductive healthcare, the Health Department causes Ohioans to ask, ‘what is the Health Department trying to hide?’”
The suit, captioned State ex rel. NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Foundation v. Ohio Department of Health, Case No. 14-2224, was filed on December 24, 2014. Chandra and Ashlie Case Sletvold of The Chandra Law Firm, LLC, www.ChandraLaw.com, represent the Foundation.