After commenting on Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s inappropriate blurring of lines between her office, her campaign, and her non-profit friends at the Rhode Island Foundation, I asked the governor’s office for copies of all communications related to the matter of funding the application fees for illegal immigrants participating in the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Although the resulting package of emails excludes 110 communications using the “drafts” exemption in the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), the reading is educational, if brief.
Communications Director Michael Raia — a taxpayer-paid state employee — edited his office’s press release to reduce the impression that the campaign was a government project. On the other hand, he and other staff in the governor’s office then proceeded to use taxpayer resources to promote the effort to national media and pitch the idea to other politicians. (The mayor’s office in New York City appears to have been the most interested.)
Pitching to former Obama staffer and now-podcaster Tommy Vietor, Raia sought common ground by agreeing with the podcaster’s belief about “Democrats’ f****** up the message by doing things like calling American kids ‘DACA recipients'” (although without the asterisks).
The most important part of the APRA response, however, is this paragraph of the cover letter (all emphasis in original):
… approximately five e-mails contain the identity of individuals who donated to the private organization on the condition of anonymity. Disclosure of these individuals’ identities would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invastion of personal privacy.” See R.I. Gen Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b); Direct Action for Rights & Equality v. Gannon, 713 A.2d 218 (R.I. 1998) (holding that APRA’s purpose is “to protect from disclosure information [sic] about particular individuals maintained in the files of public bodies when disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”). These individuals are not involved in government activities; rather, they have donated to a private organization — the Rhode Island Foundation — which will work directly with other non-profit groups to provide for DACA renewal fees. See United States v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 774 (U.S. 1989) (“FOIA’s central purpose is to ensure that the Government’s activities be opened to the sharp eye of public scrutiny, not that information about private citizens that happens to be in the warehouse of the Government be so disclosed.”)
The refusal to provide these five emails is a perfect illustration of why the governor’s behavior is inappropriate. The individual donors ostensibly wished to be anonymous in giving their gift, but their involvement was communicated to the governor and or her staff in their official capacity. Although the donation was to a private organization, it was explicitly in cooperation with an interest of the governor acting as the governor, with an outcome that she has been using for self promotion and political interactions with other government officials.
Under the rationale of this APRA response, the governor gets to know who these helpful-to-her people are, but the public does not. In turn, the governor knows what favors they might want from state government, and the public has no way to connect the dots.