Attorney General Peter F. Neronha announced today that the Office of the Attorney General has filed a complaint in Rhode Island Superior Court alleging that the Town of West Warwick violated the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act (APRA). The lawsuit requests that the Court order West Warwick to turn over all responsive documents related to a 2018 APRA request and asks the Court to assess civil fines and attorneys' fees.
"Public bodies should operate in an open and transparent fashion, which is the essence of why our open government laws exist," said Attorney General Neronha. "We take open government matters seriously and expect public officials to do the same and comply with the requirements of these laws."
The filing comes after the Office of the Attorney General found on March 29, 2019 that the Town had violated the APRA when it failed to timely respond to a February 15, 2018 APRA request for records related to a municipal agreement between the Town of West Warwick and the Town of Coventry. That request was filed by Mr. Eric Wilson.
As alleged in the court filing, the investigation into the initial APRA complaint revealed that the Town of West Warwick failed to respond to Mr. Wilson's request within 10 business days, as is required under the APRA. Upon finding this violation, the Office of the Attorney General directed the Town to provide the records to Mr. Wilson within 10 business days at no cost. Additionally, the Office directed the Town to explain why its violation should not be considered willful and knowing, or reckless, and to submit an affidavit describing its search efforts.
According to the complaint filed by the Office, the Town of West Warwick failed to comply with the Office's directive to provide Mr. Wilson with all responsive documents. In addition, the Town did not submit an affidavit describing its search efforts, nor did it sufficiently explain why this violation should not be considered willful and knowing, or reckless.
In addition to the production of all responsive records, the Office is seeking the assessment of civil fines and attorneys' fees. Under the APRA, the Superior Court may impose a fine of up to $2,000 if a public body is found to have committed a knowing and willful violation of the statute, or a fine of up to $1,000 if a public body is found to have recklessly violated the statute.
About the APRA
An individual may file a request to receive public records from a public body under the APRA. The public body may withhold documents if they are exempt under the APRA but must let the individual know what the basis is for withholding. The requestor may file a complaint with the Office of Attorney General's Open Government Unit if he or she believes the public body's response does not comply with the APRA. The Open Government Unit then investigates the complaint and issue an administrative finding.
The Office of Attorney General is authorized to file a lawsuit in Superior Court against the public body if it finds that injunctive relief is necessary or that the violation was willful and knowing, or reckless.