A court battle for records that shed light on some of Kentucky’s most heinous child abuse cases has finally ended, and the resolution is a huge victory for the public. It establishes that government agencies are not above the law.
The state agreed Monday to pay nearly $700,000 — including $250,000 in fines — to the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader to settle their open records case against the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
In addition, earlier this year the state settled a case with the Todd County Standard and agreed to pay the paper $33,511 for legal expenses and $6,625 in fines. In that case, the cabinet tried to withhold records detailing the abuse of 9-year-old Amy Dye, who was beaten to death in February 2011 by her adoptive brother.
The state’s efforts to conceal records in cases where children suffered fatal or near-fatal injuries from abuse and neglect began in 2009. That’s when the dispute started between the cabinet and the state’s two largest newspapers.
For seven years, attorneys for the cabinet repeatedly fought the disclosure of abuse records. Running up legal bills with taxpayer money, the cabinet tried to argue it was protecting the confidentiality of family members and others connected to children in abuse cases. But the cabinet’s motives were questionable. It appeared the cabinet was more interested in hiding evidence of its own shortcomings.
In the Dye case, for example, the cabinet denied certain records even existed before eventually being forced to turn over them over to the Todd County newspaper. When they were finally released, we learned Amy Dye’s teachers had warned social workers about signs of abuse in her home.
Some of the harshest criticism of the cabinet’s efforts to withhold information came from Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd. In an order he signed in December 2013, he wrote, “The cabinet has intentionally continued to employ a wholesale blanket approach to withholding public records despite such an approach being prohibited by the Open Records Act and contrary to the court’s repeated orders to support any and all redactions by case-by-case analysis.”
Shepherd, who also wrote that state officials had behaved like the open records law was “an obstacle to be circumvented rather than a law mandating compliance,” imposed a $756,000 fine against the cabinet. Then the cabinet, again spending the public’s money on legal fees, appealed.
Two months ago, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld Shepherd’s ruling. Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration appealed to the state Supreme Court, but only in an effort to have the fine reviewed. As a result, the settlement agreement was reached.
Wes Jackson, the Courier-Journal’s president, and Rufus Friday, the Herald-Leader’s president and publisher, both said their papers are looking at options to use the fine money — $125,000 each — to promote child welfare and government transparency. Their focus on serving the public is honorable, and we commend their efforts.
Bevin, through spokeswoman Jessica Ditto, put the blame for a long and expensive legal battle on former Gov. Steve Beshear.
“This settlement saves the taxpayers over $500,000, plus additional legal expenses,” Ditto said.
Bevin’s approach to resolving this case could be a good first step in changing the cabinet’s secretive and self-serving culture. We’ll know in time if he truly stands for transparency and open government — as he should.
Kentucky New Era