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Public records can turn up amazing things

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By Linda Ireland

In Kentucky, it's presumed that government documents are open unless there's a good reason to keep them secret.

Until July 1, people in South Dakota had to prove documents were open as they sought information. A new law shifts the burden to government to show why it has the right to withhold information.

Officials think it will have a "long-term positive impact on government," according to a news account. It's a long overdue development.

In news-gathering, we're sometimes frustrated by the lack of cooperation of government agencies and the difficulty in locating the needed material. But overall, local agencies are helpful in fulfilling requests.

It's amazing what turns up.

It was through open records requests that the Lexington Herald-Leader uncovered some questionable spending practices of the Kentucky Association of Counties. KACo is a nonprofit group that lobbies for counties and provides them with insurance and finance opportunities. Much of its funding comes from taxpayers.

In March 2008, six people representing KACo attended a conference in Washington, D.C. at a cost of $31,700. Two dinners cost $4,277 and $10,000 was forfeited for hotel rooms that weren't used.

In December 2008, 14 employees flew to Florida for a conference. Average cost per person for a late dinner was $125. Two days later, their meals averaged $148 per person.

At an April 2007 dinner in New York, KACo executive director Bob Arnold left a tip on a bill that added 47 percent to the cost of the meal. What started out as an $816 meal ended up costing $1,200.

Arnold described the spending as "the cost of doing business," according to the Herald-Leader.

Arnold's salary is $178,080 plus a car and country club membership. Arnold is blind, so other employees drive him around in the $38,000 BMW SUV loaded with satellite radio and OnStar services.

Arnold also charged more than $5,000 on Christmas presents for KACo employees the last two years. The association also pays for monthly staff birthday lunches.

More than $7,000 was spent on tickets for board members to attend golf's Ryder Cup last September.

Another KACo member is disputing that he used the association's credit card at a strip club and escort service. He admits he spent $473 at the Hooter's Casino for food drinks and a show in Utah.

Ten years ago, LaRue County Judge/Executive Tommy Turner was given a credit card while serving as president of KACo. He recalls cutting it into pieces.

The rest of the group could take a lesson from Turner.

It was only after the newspaper requested the records that KACo began overseeing expenses and requiring credit card bills be reviewed. Persons who have been issued credit cards now see a copy of the bill.

That's why open records laws are so important. They hold agencies accountable. And taxpayers who are now trying to dig out of double-digit unemployment can see where their money is spent.

Individuals also have the right to request records from agencies.

Basically, the Kentucky Open Records Act, KRS 61.880, requires that an agency tell the requester within three days of its receipt of the request - excluding weekends and holidays - of its decision on whether it will comply with the request. The response must be in writing, without exception. If an agency hasn't given you a response within three days in writing, call the official custodian of the record and request an immediate written response.

If the agency denies access to any record, it must explain why, citing the exception by law. The exceptions are found in KRS 61.878.

If you are denied access to records, you may file an appeal with the attorney general. You'll need copies of the written request and denial.

For more information about Kentucky's Open Records Act, see www.air.ky.gov/openrecords.