Communication between attorney general and his scheduler deemed private
Sunday, April 13, 2008 3:36 AM
By James Nash
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Attorney General Marc Dann, who campaigned on a pledge to uphold transparency in government, is refusing to turn over e-mail messages between him and his scheduler.
Dann’s office on Friday denied a request from The Dispatch under Ohio’s public records law to review three months’ worth of e-mail messages between him and his then-scheduler, Jessica Utovich.
Dann in the past has said e-mails are public records and also has sought troves of messages from public offices when he was a state senator and the Democratic candidate for Ohio’s top legal office.
One of Dann’s first acts as attorney general was to order his staff to retain e-mail messages for 180 days.
“Good government is open government, and we cannot be responsive to citizen requests for information if the information is routinely destroyed, including electronic communication such as e-mails,” Dann said at the time.
The Dispatch requested the messages between Dann and Utovich under Ohio’s public records law on April 2, four days before publishing a story about sexual-harassment allegations against a Dann aide who also is a close friend.
In one of the written complaints, an employee reported seeing Utovich, 28, in Dann’s condo at night wearing pajamas or sweats last September.
Utovich was reassigned in January as the office’s travel director. She earns $44,300 a year, up from the $35,000 she made when hired in early 2007.
Dann’s office said the request for all written correspondence between Dann and Utovich in September, October and November would not be granted because it is “overbroad.”
The request “lacks the specificity and particularity that the law requires to assist both requesters and public offices in carrying out their responsibilities,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Lisa G. Whittaker.
Before taking statewide office, Dann often filed sweeping records requests.
As a state senator in June 2005 looking into allegations of impropriety at the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, Dann made a public records request for “any communication to and from the attorney general’s office and Thomas W. Noe or his lawyers or other representatives.” Noe was a Republican fundraiser who benefited from questionable bureau investments.
It’s unclear how then-Attorney General Jim Petro’s office responded to Dann’s request.
Dann’s office also denied The Dispatch request on the basis that e-mail is not a public record.
Earlier, Dann repeatedly said that e-mail messages are public records when they deal with the functions of the office. He has prodded legislators to retain e-mail messages and even treat messages on private e-mail accounts as public if they deal with public business.
A 2008 guide to Ohio Sunshine Laws prepared by Dann’s office and Auditor Mary Taylor states that e-mail messages are usually public record.
“Our effort to end the culture of corruption in Ohio will start by insisting on transparency and accountability in all government institutions, including the attorney general’s office,” Dann said upon taking office in 2007.
His office didn’t attempt to reconcile that position with Whittaker’s response to the public-records request.
“Lisa Whittaker’s letter speaks for itself,” spokesman Ted Hart said.
Dann’s office has released some records on Utovich requested by The Dispatch during the past six months, including her personnel file, time cards and expense reimbursements.
Dann has acknowledged that Utovich made after-hours visits to the condominium he shared with the aide accused of sexual harassment, Anthony Gutierrez, and spokesman Leo Jennings III. But the attorney general said Utovich was there for work purposes exclusively and was never dressed in pajamas.
Utovich’s expense reports show that she was reimbursed for a drive to the attorney general’s Cleveland office, but never for driving from her home near German Village to the Dublin condo.
Hart said he can’t explain that. Utovich has declined to comment.