Three state agencies continue to flout the Massachusetts public record laws as Live Boston tries to report of issues pertinent to the public safety community.
Requests sent to the Massachusetts State Police, the Massachusetts Department of Correction and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority have all gone unanswered.
On July 20, Live Boston requested exit interviews of recruits who dropped out of the recent Massachusetts State Police Academy troops to get a better understanding of the attrition rates. Between the last five recruit training troops, 232 recruits – 20% of the total 1,143 recruits – have dropped out of the academy before graduation.
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The department’s deputy chief legal counsel, Sean Farrell, who earns an annual salary of $123,284, never responded to Live Boston’s public records request nor repeated follow up inquiries. On October 1, the state’s Supervisor of Records ordered Farrell to provide us with a response within ten business days. The Secretary of State’s Public Records Division reminded Farrell a response was due by October 19. On October 25, after still not receiving a response, the office wrote:
“I’m writing you about the above appeal as a response is long outstanding and the requestor has inquired multiple times as to the status of your office’s response. Please advise this office and the requestor immediately regarding the status of the response and when you intend to respond. If there are any responsive records available, please provide them even if they are only partially available on a rolling basis. Should you wish to discuss this matter please contact this office.
Please be advised that failure to respond to the determination letter issued by the Supervisor of Public Records for an appeal may result in referral to the Office of the Attorney General for enforcement. Our goal is to resolve this matter so if we may be of assistance in any way please do not hesitate to contact our office.”
To date, Live Boston still has not received the requested documents. We reached out to Massachusetts State Police spokesperson David Procopio asking if the Colonel was aware of our inquiry and Farrell’s failure to respond. We also asked if the department respects the state’s public records laws. Our inquiries have gone unanswered.
Live Boston started looking into the attrition rates after sources told us a significant portion of the recruits who dropped out did so because of the academy’s strict no cell phone policy. We spoke with a retired veteran trooper who worked at the academy for several years. He told us while he questions the ‘quality’ of a recruit who isn’t able to get through a week at the academy without using their cell phone, he understands times have changed. He said with the current state of recruitment and retention in policing, the department should consider allowing recruits ten to fifteen minutes at the end of each day to communicate with their loved ones via cell phone. On October 4, we asked the Massachusetts State Police if the cell phone policy still remains in place at the academy. That inquiry has also gone unanswered.
Understanding the attrition rates is more important now than ever given the severe staffing shortages at the Massachusetts State Police. Prior to Governor Charlie Baker’s authoritarian vaccinate mandate that has cost dozens of troopers their jobs and left hundreds more state employees hanging in limbo, the department was already short more than 500 uniformed members, according to the November 2020 staffing study from The Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The department doesn’t appear to be in a rush to hire more troopers either. The next academy isn’t being scheduled until next year and a firm date hasn’t even been set.
Live Boston has also been trying to get documents related to the termination of a Department of Corrections employee, as we first reported on October 26. We tried for weeks to get comment from the DOC before publishing our story, but after initially acknowledging our inquiry, the DOC ignored our inquiries. In an effort to get a better understanding of what was going on behind the scenes at the time, we requested a week’s worth of emails sent to and from Commissioner Carol Mici and Deputy Director of Communications Jason Dobson. Kate Silvia, the DOC’s director of communications, provided us with an estimate of $650 to produce the emails. The estimates were contradictory, as they noted the fee was for time needed to search for the emails, while also stating the exact number of documents that had been located related to our request. Live Boston restructured our request, which has now gone answered for more than three weeks and past the required ten business days for a response.
We also asked for other emails and employment records for the employee who was terminated. Those requests have also gone unanswered. Silvia questioned our ability to restructure our public records request, indicating a lack of understanding regarding the state’s public records laws.
Silvia and Dobson, who earn a combined $216,266 in taxpayer money annually, didn’t respond to Live Boston’s inquiry as to their failure to comply with the state’s public records laws and the lack of transparency from their agency.
On September 26, Live Boston requested surveillance video from the MBTA of the Back Bay escalator malfunction that same day that sent several people to hospitals. The MBTA denied our request on October 12 citing an ongoing investigation and privacy concerns for the people depicted in the video. Live Boston appealed the denial with the state’s Supervisor of Records, noting the investigation was not criminal in nature and nothing depicted in the video hasn’t already been made public via MBTA statements and witness interviews from media reports. On October 27, the state’s Supervisor of Records notified Live Boston:
“Based upon a conversation between a Public Records Division staff attorney and an MBTA representative, it is my understanding the MBTA intends on providing a subsequent response to Mr. Saccone.
Accordingly, the MBTA is ordered to provide Mr. Saccone with a response to his request in a manner consistent with the Public Records Law and its Access Regulations within ten (10) business days.”
The MBTA had until November 12 to reply to Live Boston. As of today, the MBTA’s Records Access Officer, William Doyle, still has not responded to repeated inquiries about the subsequent response his agency told the state they’d be sending us.
When asked about our records request and the MBTA’s stance on the state’s public records laws, spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told Live Boston on Thursday, “Like every public agency, the MBTA works very hard to meet the statutory requirements. You will be receiving a follow-up response from the MBTA Records Access Officer. The MBTA is working to provide a response that satisfies your request while simultaneously protecting the privacy rights of those involved in the incident.”
Public officials flouting the state’s public records laws, which are among the weakest in the country, is nothing new, but also hasn’t gone unnoticed either.
“We need transparency to not just learn about our government agencies, but to also help strengthen them,” Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told Live Boston in a statement. “Only when we know about the problems can we begin to work on the solutions. Our public records law is a tool we can use to expose those problems. The law, however, must be followed and enforced. Otherwise, we’re all left in the dark just guessing if government is working as well as it could be.”
Requests for comment from Governor Charlie Baker and the Secretary of State were not returned.
*UPDATE: After publication of this story at 15:00 hours, the Department of Correction at 4:37 p.m. responded to our public records request regarding employment records for the employee who was terminated in October for “failure to obey a direct order.” The records confirmed the employee’s last day on the job was October 7, as we first reported. The employee’s pay stubs, which we also requested, were overly redacted.