by Max Brantley
We heard a squib on KUAR coming home that said Gov. Huckabee would appeal a judge's ruling that he must release the investigative file on misconduct by former Parole Board member Larry Zeno.
Too bad. An editorial today in the D-G chiding the governor for his secrecy -- and his discriminatory treatment of the Times -- apparently didn't convince the governor to let the sun shine in. As it happens, we'd just checked in with the Democrat-Gazette's lawyer, who said a final order in the case has not yet been filed. But the judge apparently will not order release of the file pending appeal and so the newspaper may cross-appeal.
This case illustrates how weak the FOI has become. If a public official can withhold a public document -- as the Parole Board file clearly was -- and fight release through the appeals process, only the very wealthiest and most motivated people will ever be able to pursue an FOI case, particularly if the Supreme Court sticks to its precedent in a Fort Smith case in making attorney fees almost impossible to gain. This puts the balance of power so far in favor of an elected official that you might as well shut down the FOI. Here, the governor is withholding a file simply because it might embarrass him and an appointee he'd previously given a pass when Zeno had an unseemly talk with an inmate about cut-rate diamonds. The governor has nothing to lose, except a critical newspaper editorial or two, and everything to gain by resisting. There is no cost to him. The taxpayers are paying his legal bill. The Democrat-Gazette must pay its own. It is not cheap and they are to be commended for fighting this and other good fights.
I don't exaggerate in saying the situation requires the press lobby to get to work for the 2007 session for a bill with meaningful attorney fee awards. And I'll remind the FOI coalition, again, that it made no sense whatsoever to include the governor's office in that FOI working group for the last legislative session. You might as well invite Br'er Fox into the Tyson factory.