Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Quasi-public board of private prison broke RI’s open government laws

Wyatt Board violated both the Open Meetings Act and the Access to Public Records Act, determines RI Attorney General in pair of decisions
Image result for sunshine laws“Accordingly, in accordance with the APRA, the Corporation is directed to respond to the Complainant within ten business days regarding the specifics as to [detainees’] name, age, country of origin, and specifics of why the [detainee) is being detained.”

The Rhode Island Attorney General‘s office just ruled in favor of UpriseRI and against the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC), the controlling body of the Wyatt Detention Center, on both an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) complaint and an Open Meetings Act (OMA) complaint.

The complaint was made by this reporter, Steve Ahlquist, the publisher of UpriseRI.

In the OMA complaint, I made, broadly speaking, two claims. One, the meeting was scheduled on an early Sunday morning without proper notice and with less than 48 hours of public notice, and two, that the content of the published agenda was not specific enough. The CFDFC also held a vote during the meeting, though exactly what the board was voting on was not specified.

On the first point, the Attorney General ruled:
“Based on the evidence presented, we also conclude that the Corporation did not fail to post notice of the emergency meeting as soon as reasonably practicable – within half a working day following its meeting with Chief Judge Smith, giving the public approximately forty-four (44) hours of advance notice. The Complainant did not dispute the contention recorded in the Board’s meeting minutes that the notice was posted as soon as practicable given the need to consult with counsel concerning what developed during the prior day’s court conference. We conclude that taking approximately half a business day to consult counsel and to schedule and post notice of the emergency meeting did not violate the OMA under the circumstances. Additionally, rather than scheduling the meeting for Friday or Saturday, the Corporation scheduled the meeting for Sunday, April 14th, which provided a longer notice period.”
On the second point, the Attorney General ruled:
“Based on the totality of the circumstances, and consistent with the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s precedent, we find that the agenda item cited by the Corporation did not sufficiently specify the nature of the business to be discussed and therefore the Corporation violated the OMA.”
The emergency meeting and vote were held under the orders of Judge William Smith, who is overseeing a lawsuit brought by the Wyatt Bondholders against the CFDFC, members of the Central Falls City Council and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa. Smith ordered the board to “rescind the April 14th vote ‘staying for thirty days the aforesaid April 5, 2019, vote suspending the ICE Addendum.'”

Though the Attorney General did not find the OMA violation to be “willful,”
“…we are mindful that this is now the second time in the last several months the Corporation has been found to have violated the OMA by failing to provide sufficient notice in an agenda item” and, “Although we do not find evidence of a knowing or willful violation in this case, this finding serves as notice to the Corporation that the conduct discussed herein violates the OMA and may serve as evidence of a willful or a knowing violation in any similar future situation.”
The APRA violation was much more open and shut. When it was first revealed that the Wyatt was going to be housing ICE detainees, under President Donald Trump‘s zero-tolerance border policy, I requested information about who the detainees were, specifically the “prisoner’s name, age, country of origin, and specifics of why the prisoner is being detained.”

This request was flatly denied, and frankly, the lawyers for the CFDFC did a poor job defending their decision to deny the information.

The Attorney General writes,
“Accordingly, in accordance with the APRA, the Corporation is directed to respond to the Complainant within ten business days regarding the specifics as to [detainees’] name, age, country of origin, and specifics of why the [detainee) is being detained.”
The CFDFC must also provide this information free of charge.

The Attorney General adds that “[A]lthough injunctive relief may be appropriate, for the reasons discussed, we believe it appropriate to first allow the Corporation an opportunity to comply with this finding. At this time, we do not find that the Corporation committed a willful and knowing, or reckless, violation, but we may revisit that issue based on future developments.”

See the Attorney General decisions here:

Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.