AP prevails in records lawsuit

 

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A state agency that sued The Associated Press over a request to see documents on alleged sexual misconduct of prison employees must hand over the records, a Helena judge decided in the constitutional right-to-know case. The issue stems from the resignation of four female Montana State Prison employees and the departure of one male employee after allegations surfaced of employee sexual misconduct with a male inmate in late 2008. The AP later sought the investigation documents — prompting the state to sue the news organization rather than release the records. The Corrections Department argued in court that releasing documents surrounding the investigation would violate constitutional privacy rights of individual employees. The agency said guards and other prison employees should not be considered officials holding positions of public trust, a classification that courts have previously ruled have less expectation of privacy than general citizens. District Judge Kathy Seeley disagreed and said the agency must give the records to the AP with certain personal information redacted. "In the court's judgment, correctional officers and mental health counselors in the prison environment occupy positions of public trust sufficient to satisfy compelling sate interest in the release of the investigative information in this case," Seeley wrote in her deci s ion dated Wednesday. Seeley cited the state's constituTional right-to-know provisions in her decision, weighing it against the individual right to privacy. The judge said she reviewed the documents and g a v e t h e C o r r e c t i o n s Department a copy with certain addresses and phone numbers redacted for privacy reasons. Corrections Department spokesman Bob Anez said the agency is reviewing the decision before deciding whether to appeal. In November 2008, the Department of Corrections said that three employees acknowledged they were involved in or had knowledge of alleged misconduct with inmate Michael Murphy. Two of the women reached by the AP at that time denied the allegations. Powell County Attorney Lewis Smith concluded at the time that there was insufficient evidence to support criminal charges. T h e D e p a r tme n t o f Corrections launched an internal investigation, but refused to release copies of the results. Murphy, a former Kalispell resident serving a 25-year sentence, had previously sent a letter to Montana newspapers reporting several of the suspensions and alleging the sexual misconduct on the part of the female prison employees. Under state and federal laws, an inmate is unable to consent to sex. Murphy, 35, has a record that includes convictions for forgery, felony theft and criminal endangerment. The AP, which had argued that right-to-know guarantees trump the privacy concerns in the case, also sought attorney fees from the state. Seeley sided with the state on that issue, saying it would not be appropriate to award attorney fees.


 

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