UH violated open records law in Stevie Wonder investigation, OIP rules

UH violated open records law in Stevie Wonder investigation, OIP rules

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Honolulu law firm paid $65,000 by the University of Hawaii improperly redacted names of people and businesses from a UH fact finding report on the failed Stevie Wonder concert, breaking Hawaii's Uniform Information Practices Act, according to the state Office of Information Practices.

The agency that enforces the state's open records law said the UH made one error after another in keeping the names of people, companies and even government entities secret as part of its investigation into the canceled event.

The UH spent at least $50,000 hiring a law firm to put together a fact finders' report investigating the failed event.

That firm produced a report which UH released to the media and the public, but redacted or kept secret the names of any non-UH employee, leaving white blanks where their names had been.

In a March 28 opinion, the State Office of Information Practices said all but one of those names should have been disclosed.

"They [UH] consistently withhold information even from the legislature," said State Senate President Donna Kim. "I know they do it regularly to the media, but they withhold information from to the legislature and to the public and this needs to change. They think they're above the law."

Kim asked for the opinion after Hawaii News Now requested a full copy of the report last fall with names included.

For instance, the OIP opinion said the redaction of former UH Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw's name was not only ineffective because her title remained in the document, but contrary to state law, since she was a public employee.

And the OIP also said redactions should have been made in black instead of white so it was clear where the information had been redacted.

UH paid law firm of Torkildson, Katz, $65,000 to handle the redactions, services that ended up being incorrect and unlawful legal advice, according to the OIP opinion.

"Perhaps due to its decision to outsource its responsibilities under UIPA [the state open records law], UH's response to requests for records related to this issue of high public interest appears not to have been supervised by anyone with even a passing familiarity to the actual law governing public records requests," wrote OIP staff attorney Jennifer Brooks in the opinion.

Kim said, "And if we are paying $65,000 for work that is incorrect, have no bearing to the law, why did we hire an attorney firm to do this?"

During a State Senate Higher Education Committee hearing late Tuesday afternoon, Kim asked university regent nominees whether UH should pay the law firm's bill.

"If there is no question that it was not done correctly, then I would question why we would pay that bill," said Eugene Bal, a nominee to represent the island of Maui on the 15-member volunteer UH Board of Regents.

Current regent Barry Mizuno, who represents Hawaii island and has been re-nominated, told Kim, "I think If it was an error, no, we should not pay."

"We have reviewed the OIP opinion and will re-issue the Fact finder's Report with the redactions directed by OIP," according to a statement released by the University of Hawaii.

"When the university first received the report, we sought legal advice to enable us to release as much information as possible to allow the public to understand and assess what happened with respect to the canceled Stevie Wonder concert. Our Office of General Counsel was not able to advise us on this matter because OGC attorneys had been involved in matters addressed in the report, which created a conflict of interest. We therefore sought the advice of outside counsel," the UH statement said.

"Counsel advised that we could properly release the names of UH employees as part of the report.  This was critical to facilitate transparency and the accountability function of the report.  However, our attorneys advised us to redact the names of third parties outside the university to protect their rights. The day after the UH received the final report, it was released to the public with redactions in accordance with counsel's advice," the UH said, advice that turned out to violate the state's public records law.

UH officials could not immediately say if the university would not pay the law firm's bill or would seek a partial refund for the bad legal advice it received.

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