Cuomo issues rules to better access public records; advocates question the motive

Jun 29, 2018

Earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new system for state government to respond to requests made under the Freedom of Information law. It would allow citizens and members of the media seeking government documents to go to one online site to request information from multiple state agencies.

The new portal offers a form for document requests. The requests can be sent to up to three state agencies at one time. It also lists the contact information for staff members who handle FOIL requests at 59 state agencies and public authorities.

Cuomo, in a press release, described the new system as a “giant leap forward.”

John Kaehny with the reform group Reinvent Albany called it a “sensible step,” but he said many other states have had similar systems for years.

“The state’s been a little behind,” Kaehny said.

In the next year, the state plans to add upgraded software to the system so that when requests reach the state agencies, it will be easier for them to retrieve documents and make them public.

Kaehny said he hopes that will help the agencies process and respond to the requests faster.

“It’s really the next steps we are looking forward to more to help deal with the problems with big, big delays in FOIL,” Kaehny said.

The Cuomo administration has been notoriously slow in answering FOIL requests. The matter was brought up during the ongoing federal bid-rigging trial of the former head of SUNY Polytechnic, Alain Kaloyeros, who also headed Cuomo’s economic development efforts. Kaloyeros is facing charges along with three upstate developers.

In opening statements to the jury, Kaloyeros’ lawyer, Reid Weingarten, tried to explain why his client at times used private emails to communicate with favored developers about potential bids. Weingarten said that evading FOIL requests “was almost sport in New York state government.”

Kaehny said those statements were “cynical and damaging.” And he said it’s interesting that the announcement about the new upgrades for FOIL requests came a week later.

“Politically, it would make sense to address that,” he said.

A spokesman for the governor said it would be “unfair” to connect the defense lawyer’s statements at the trial with the announcement of the new FOIL request system. Spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the new portal has actually been up and running for a couple of months, but it had not been publicly announced.

And on Wednesday, Cuomo restricted some access to public records under the state’s FOIL rules, making it harder for the public to get personal information about state employees.

Under law, the names of the workers must be disclosed, but Cuomo said he’s reacting to the Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case, which outlaws the collection of union dues and related fees from employees who don’t want to be in a union. Cuomo said he’s afraid of anti-union forces trying to get the home addresses and cellphone numbers of state workers in an attempt to persuade them to quit their unions.