The Kennebec County Superior Court has ordered the Maine County Commissioners Association Self-Funded Risk Management Pool (Risk Pool) to pay $130,000 to a non-profit prisoner advocacy organization after finding that the Risk Pool unlawfully withheld public records from the organization in bad faith.
The award comes after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in August 2023 that the Risk Pool, a government entity responsible for covering the costs of legal settlements, had acted in bad faith in not fulfilling a Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request from the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) in June 2021.
The HRDC, an organization that advocates on behalf of the human rights of people held in U.S. detention facilities, had filed a FOAA request with Kennebec County in relation to the settlement of a federal lawsuit against the county for the alleged maltreatment of a prisoner at the Kennebec County Jail.
After the Risk Pool failed to provide the requested settlement agreement to the HRDC, the non-profit filed a complaint against the Risk Pool in February 2022, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maine.
After a bench trial in September 2022, the court found that Risk Pool violated Maine’s FOAA by failing to turn over the settlement documents to the HRDC, and that they had “adopted absurd, blatantly untrue, and inconsistent legal positions in this litigation to avoid a ruling on the merits.”
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court later upheld the Superior Court’s 2022 decision, siding with the HRDC.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling was the first time the court considered what constitutes “bad faith” for the purposes of a FOAA provision allowing attorney’s fees and litigation expenses to be awarded to a plaintiff if a records request was denied in bad faith.
On Jan. 16, the Kennebec County Superior Court ordered the Risk Pool pay an award of $127,127.33 in attorney fees and $3,472.69 in costs and expenses to the HRDC, for a total of $130,600.02 in the form of a check payable to the ACLU of Maine.
“When government actors hide public records, they will pay the price,” said ACLU of Maine Legal Director Carol Garvan in a Monday press release. “Today’s order proves that Maine’s open records laws have teeth.”
“The documents in this case are public, and there is a strong public interest in understanding the use of taxpayer dollars and settlements stemming from allegations of misconduct in Maine jails,” Garvan said. “These documents should have been released in 2021 when they were requested.”