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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Attorney General’s office allows Hopkinton to keep Morgan documents secret

Ruling says town may refuse to disclose files on complaints that Sen. Elaine Morgan impersonated police officer
By Will Collette

Right-wingnut Sen. Elaine Morgan (Tea Party-Hopkinton, Charlestown, Exeter, Richmond,  W. Greenwich) was the subject of citizen complaints against her for abusing her office as Hopkinton’s elected Town Sergeant. 

The complaints charged that Morgan used her town uniform to pretend she was a police officer when, in fact, she had no police powers.

Those complaints were filed with Hopkinton Police and with the Hopkinton Manager but were never formally investigated and no charges were ever filed.

The existence of those complaints is a fact. It’s also a fact that the town of Hopkinton never actually investigated those complaints. We know this because the Town of Hopkinton admitted it.

But that leaves us with some glaring questions: 
  • What did Morgan actually do that drew those complaints?
  • How did the town handle these serious charges against an elected town official who now happens to be the state Senator not just for Hopkinton, but also Richmond, Exeter and the northern half of Charlestown?

Unfortunately, you’ll probably never know.

After seeing a copy of one of the complaints posted on Facebook and hearing from town residents and from one of the actual complainants, I filed an open records request with the town for records of any complaints against Morgan and for the final results of any town inquiry into those complaints. That was on November 17, 2014.

I knew I was going to have to walk a careful line in the request because under the RI Access to Public Records Act (APRA), there are many types of records that are exempt from public disclosure, such as the actual investigation files themselves.

The Town promptly refused my request, citing privacy provisions of the APRA. The Town Manager promptly denied my appeal of that refusal. 

So, following the steps laid out in the APRA, I filed an appeal with state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s special open government unit. That appeal was filed on December 17, 2014.

You can read the details of how I went from filing a request for records from Hopkinton to filing an appeal with the AG’s Office here and here.

It took more than a year to get a final answer from the Attorney General’s Office. On February 2, I received a letter from Special Assistant Attorney General Malena Lopez Mora telling me my appeal was denied.

Reading the nine-page decision, it is clear that the reason the case took so long to decide is that the Town of Hopkinton also stonewalled the AG’s Office, which wanted to see all of the records in dispute so they could review them “in camera” (in secret) to determine whether they should be released.

In my request and when I filed a rebuttal to Hopkinton’s arguments against my appeal, I recognized that there may be a conflict between the right of privacy and the right of the public to know about the conduct of elected officials such as now Senator Morgan. 

I argued the public’s right to know trumped the privacy rights of an elected official accused of abusing her office.

The AG’s Office ruled that after secretly reviewing the documents Hopkinton reluctantly provided to them, they came down on the side of privacy, not just for Morgan but also for other persons. For reasons of privacy, the AG’s office cannot and will not name who those other individuals are.

Since the Town of Hopkinton already admitted that it never conducted any sort of formal investigation or review of the complaints against Morgan – a stunning admission in itself – it wasn’t hugely surprising that the AG’s office ruled the way it did.

Not investigating citizens’ complaints and apparently being careful not to create a paper trail doesn't violate the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), even though it may leave you shaking your head in wonderment at the betrayal of public trust.

I’ve since asked the RI Chapter of the Americans for Civil Liberties Union to review the matter and advise me on whether there are any legal options to try to shine a light on this matter.

Whether there is any legal recourse doesn’t change the fact that citizens’ complaints were filed against Sen. Elaine Morgan for abusing her office and that the Town of Hopkinton never actually investigated those complaints. 

Those facts on their own leave Morgan with some explaining to do if she wants the voters of Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton and Richmond to re-elect her this November.