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ACLU alleges Maricopa County Attorney illegally withholds public records

In this Aug. 25, 2014 file photo, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery speaks during a news conference in Phoenix. Hundreds of immigrants who have been denied bail under a strict Arizona law will now have the opportunity to be released after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014 in the closely watched case. The high court kept intact a lower-court ruling from three weeks ago that struck down the law, which was passed in 2006 amid a series of immigration crackdowns in Arizona over the past decade. Montgomery and Sehriff Joe Arpaio defended the law before the courts.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona is suing Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, alleging he has failed to fulfill an abundance of public records requests for a freelance journalist who received just one document over a seven month period.

Sean Holstege filed a public records request, on behalf of the ACLU of Arizona, into the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in October 2018 regarding “basic information about how that office functions, including policies, budgets, and data on individual criminal cases,” the lawsuit says.

Holstege – a former staff writer with The Arizona Republic and freelance writer for Phoenix New Times – only received one document, with little to no substantive responses from Montgomery’s Office after several follow-ups, it says in the suit.

State law requires the government to “promptly” disclose records, but the ACLU of Arizona is suggesting that one document over seven months does not meet that standard. The one record Holstege received was a staff roster for a single year within the date range requested, according to the lawsuit.

Amanda Steele, a spokeswoman for the MCAO, said the office has incurred an increasing number of public records requests in the past few years which has led to increasing response times and they answer requests in the order they are received.

“There is no other way for us to try and fairly respond to requests from a multitude of outlets,” she told the Arizona Capitol Times.

Steele said while Holstege may not appreciate the time it takes to provide his records, he is not being ignored.

Regarding the records request made, Steele said it is a “very large and broad custom data request, which necessarily also requires a redaction review to avoid releasing private and or otherwise protected information.”

The request is six pages long with nearly 200 discrete items over a six-year period, she said.

The ACLU claims that the county’s top prosecutor “often impedes attempts to gather public information.”

One year ago, Montgomery warned police departments they could face financial consequences if they strayed from a process the office devised to determine whether to release a public record and were later sued.

Steele accused the ACLU of previously grandstanding the office publicly, which is what she suggests they are doing again today.

“The [ACLU] reached out to media outlets before serving MCAO with any lawsuit. This is the most obvious sign that they are more interested in generating negative headlines about this office, as they have with other prosecution offices across the nation, than with factual representations or truly working to reach resolutions,” she said.

The ACLU of Arizona sent a copy of the lawsuit to Arizona Capitol Times and other media outlets roughly three hours before filing it.

Holstege’s request sought records between January 1, 2013 to the day the request was filed in October 2018. He was seeking the office’s case management system, information about each criminal case prosecuted by the MCAO during the timeframe, information about charges that were declined, personnel and discipline issues related to prosecuting attorneys in the office, the office’s policies procedures, guidelines, and training materials covering topics like bail, plea bargaining, and bias, and also administrative and budget information.

Two weeks after the request was filed and no response was given, Holstege sent a follow up email asking for acknowledgement that the request was received. The MCAO did so the next day writing, ““it is not uncommon for the turnaround time for most [public record requests] to be 3-5 months.”

Holstege followed up again in February asking for an update on when the office would comply with his request.

The office said they were “chipping away” at his request and said some items could not be provided, but did not specify which.

On April 1, Holstege followed up yet again. Two days later, they informed him the request was not yet completed, but sent over one document. Holstege followed up another time on April 10 and has not yet received a response. And then again followed up a final time on April 26 demanding the office to immediately give him the remaining records, but they failed to comply.

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