Gov. Healey won't release sexual harassment complaints, settlement pacts from past 5 years
Gov. Maura Healey’s office said it won’t release copies of sexual harassment complaints filed with the office in the past five years.
The agency also rejected a WBUR request for settlement or severance agreements involving members of the governor’s office signed during the same time span. Healey’s office denied the requests and said it is completely exempt from the state’s public records law.
Critics say the denials contradict Healey’s pledge on WGBH in December to voluntarily comply with the law.
“Gov. Healey has the opportunity to bring transparency to her office like she promised she would,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes access to government information. “But it’s becoming more clear with every records denial, that she doesn’t have any intention of doing so.”
Healey’s office said it plans to voluntarily abide by the public records law going forward, but won’t apply the policy to records created before she took office in January, including the severance and settlement pacts. Her administration cited the same reason last month to reject a request for former Gov. Baker’s email from an independent journalist, Andrew Quemere.
A spokeswoman, Jillian Fennimore, defended the rejections.
“Gov. Healey remains focused on providing more transparency around public records and will continue to evaluate each request on an individual basis,” she said.
Fennimore said the office would release future settlement and severance agreements involving the governor’s staff under its new policy.
Healey’s office said sexual harassment complaints would also be protected for other reasons, including an exception for confidential personnel records or ones that would invade the privacy of individuals. The agency also cited an exception for records for internal records that could compromise the government’s ability to function if released, a rule the Secretary of State’s office says covers records like prison security measures.
The governor’s office didn’t say how many complaints it had received in the past five years, when they were filed or explain why it couldn’t release redacted versions of the documents.
Healey’s office also refused to release a trove of other documents requested by the Boston Globe, including emails and phone calls, arguing it would interfere with the governor’s ability to perform her duties. That is not one of the exemptions listed in the public records law. Her office’s written policy also said it will consider “any unique obligations of the governor’s office” when responding to requests, in addition to the many exceptions already contained in the law.
Every governor over the past 30 years has claimed the office is completely exempt from the public records law by citing a 1997 court case that found the governor’s judicial nominating commission wasn’t covered by the law. Instead, past governors have said they will voluntarily consider requests on a case-by-case basis.
Silverman said Healey appears to be following the same practice.
“I think it’s become a matter of convenience, if it’s convenient to release records, the governor’s office will do so,” he said. And if not, he said, the office can cite the court decision to say it isn’t obligated to provide the records.
Under the current public records law, it is difficult to appeal such denials.
The Secretary of State’s office rejected four appeals this week for copies of public records involving the governor’s office, including two from WBUR. The agency said both the courts and the attorney general’s office have concluded that the public records law does not extend to the governor’s office.
The governor’s office is completely exempt from the public records law in only one other state: Michigan. And Massachusetts remains the only state where the governor’s office, Legislature and judiciary all claim to be exempt.
Several lawmakers, including state Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) have filed bills to extend the records law to the governor’s office. While campaigning for governor, Healey said she would support such legislation though she has since said she wouldn’t sponsor a bill of her own.
State Auditor Diana DiZoglio said she also supports extending the public records law to the governor’s office and Legislature. But in the meantime, she said her office plans to conduct a statewide audit examining the use of nondisclosure agreements to hide cases of sexual harassment and other wrongdoing.
“Taxpayers should know if their money has been or is being spent to force silence on victims,” she said. The House of Representatives has previously said it signed 33 severance pacts with nondisclosure agreements since 2010, including one with DiZoglio, who said she was a victim of harassment as a legislative aide. A 2011 Globe story found similar agreements in other parts of state government.
Despite Healey’s refusal to provide records to WBUR, DiZoglio said she hopes to include the governor’s office in the review of nondisclosure agreements.
“I know these matters are very important to Gov. Healey, so remain optimistic that the administration will fully comply,” she said.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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