The Advertiser did not make lightly its decision to file a civil lawsuit May 23 against the University of Hawai'i to seek the athletic department's list of who traveled to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans at an estimated $2 million cost to taxpayers.
It's important to understand that many government agencies routinely flout the state's Uniform Information Practices Act by delaying or denying requests for public information. In most cases, the information requested should be provided in 10 working days. If a written explanation is provided explaining the "unusual circumstances" of why the request cannot be fulfilled in that timeframe, another 20 working days can be added.
We follow up with telephone calls, letters and e-mails but usually there's not much we can do outside of taking legal action.
Sports reporter and columnist Ferd Lewis made a request on March 13 for a number of records related to the Sugar Bowl trip, including a list of those who traveled, their titles and the expenses paid, including the charter flights, airfare, hotels, meals and other costs.
Lewis made periodic checks with Ryan Akamine, UH's associate general counsel, and UH athletics media relations director Derek Inouchi by e-mail, and on May 16, Akamine responded that the lists were not finalized, even though the game had been played on New Year's Day. Our reporter then learned that the athletic department was offering those on the list the opportunity to have their names removed if they wished to reimburse the university.
This, of course, was an outlandish attempt to keep the names hidden and the state's Office of Information Practices — after a request by Lewis to weigh in — issued a strong opinion saying the university's months-long lack of response was "effectively a denial of access." OIP further ruled that UH could not "retroactively dispose of or alter requested records" nor could anyone on the list pay UH to have their names removed.
The Advertiser prepared its lawsuit on May 23, and less than an hour after it was filed UH released a list of 550 names, most of them football players, their families, UH administrators, regents and athletic department staff. Forty-five names were blacked out. UH said those names were members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the university said their names were redacted because to disclose them would amount to "a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Examples of information in which individuals have a "significant privacy interest" under the law include medical or psychiatric histories, criminal law violations, eligibility for social services or welfare benefits, work-related disciplinary action, employment history, personal financial data, work evaluations, Social Security numbers and other information. Traveling to a football game at government expense doesn't appear to qualify.
But there are those who did not make the list because they reimbursed the university. Lewis reported that 20 to 25 staff members on May 20 were told they could buy their way off the list. UH has refused to say how many did so or what they paid, but Lewis did manage to find out that Carl Clapp, the UH associate athletics director who carried out the travel policy, reimbursed the university for three family members whose names did not appear on the list.
We intend to find out exactly who traveled to the Sugar Bowl and how much money was spent. Anyone who cares anything about the university should want to know the same thing. If there is nothing to hide, then there's no problem. And if there is nothing to hide, why would the university spend even one more tax dollar fighting this lawsuit?
Mark Platte is senior vice president/editor of The Advertiser. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8080.