Indiana taxpayers are paying the price for their legislators’ insistence on keeping the public’s business private.
So far, the tab is at $160,000 and still running.
A lawsuit from the Citizens Action Coalition, Common Cause Indiana and Energy and Policy Institute lies at the heart of this taxpayer-funded battle. The nonprofit groups are seeking emails between Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, and utility companies regarding his solar power bill. The House had denied an open records request for the correspondence, saying the General Assembly is exempt from Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.
Adding insult to injury, rather than use the state’s attorney general office to defend the lawsuit, Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) hired Indianapolis law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. As revealed last year, the outside attorney charges about $440 an hour; a second lawyer assisting charges $345 an hour.
The costs for the case are being split with the Indiana Senate and paid from the legislature’s general budget. The $160,000 figure doesn’t include legal fees from last month’s oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court, so the number will grow.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office would usually defend any lawsuits, but Bosma asked to hire outside counsel, which Zoeller approved.
All of this is in defense of the “House tradition,” which boils down to this: The Indiana Access to Public Records Law doesn’t apply to the General Assembly. Lawmakers say it’s all in the effort to protect their communications with citizens.
Never mind that the state’s public access counselor has been clear in his advisory opinion that the law does apply to lawmakers, while allowing them to shield some documents as work products. And that lawmakers could address privacy concerns by protecting sensitive information while still adhering to the law’s goal of openness.
Bosma allows that “no one likes to spend money but confidentiality of Hoosiers’ communications with their elected officials is paramount.”
But the cost of breaking faith with the public — and doing it on their dime — could run a lot higher than that $160,000-plus tab.