The Massachusetts State Police has made a habit of declaring records secret, from 911 calls to gun sale invoices to arrest reports on troopers accused of drunk driving.
Now, the department has pulled another trove of public information into the dark: the payroll records of every State Police union representative.
On Wednesday, State Police denied MassLive’s public records request for the shift and overtime records of State Police Association of Massachusetts representatives – information that has long been considered public for state employees.
The payroll records are now secret, State Police said, because the documents are connected to a federal investigation. The union and its former president Dana Pullman are currently under scrutiny by federal authorities, who have asked questions about union political contributions and a charitable foundation run by Pullman’s wife
“The documents you have requested are the subject of/ connected to an active and ongoing investigation by federal officials,” State Police Staff Counsel Siobhan Kelly wrote in the denial. “Those officials have confirmed to the Department that disclosure of the records at issue would jeopardize their investigation.”
Under the state’s public records law, agencies may deny access to documents “necessarily compiled out of the public view by law enforcement or other investigatory officials” which would harm law enforcement efforts if disclosed.
Payroll records in no way meet that description, said attorney Jeff Pyle, a First Amendment lawyer with Prince Lobel Tye LLP. And the State Police’s reasoning could make a mockery of Massachusetts’ public records system, he said, allowing agencies to declare broad swaths of public information secret.
“Payroll records are quintessentially public records. The mere fact that a record may be subject to litigation does not exempt it from the public records law,” Pyle said. “It’s just a completely erroneous interpretation of the statute.”
In a statement, State Police spokesman David Procopio said the request was denied in cooperation with federal investigators.
“The State Police were notified by federal investigators that the documents in question are potentially relevant to an ongoing federal investigation,” Procopio said. “Because their release could impact the integrity of the ongoing investigation, we are denying requests to release those specific documents at this time.”
The Office of U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication.
The state’s Supervisor of Records Office, which hears appeals of public records denials, has repeatedly ordered the State Police to provide payroll records to MassLive, ruling that the agency has failed to justify their denials.
But the department has simply ignored their orders for months, leaving no immediate recourse to access the records. The state records law can only be legally enforced by the state Attorney General’s Office, which has not taken up this case, or by a civil lawsuit that could stretch on for years. The Boston Globe is still fighting a 2015 lawsuit seeking to force the State Police and other agencies to turn over incident reports on officers charged with operating under the influence.
“The Massachusetts State Police is a notorious scofflaw when it comes to the public records law,” Pyle said. “You’d think that after a state police colonel resigned under a cloud because of the improper changing of a public record, that there would be a greater appreciation within the Massachusetts State Police of the importance of adhering to the laws concerning their records. That hasn’t gotten through.”
Since October, MassLive has been seeking access to the timesheet records of SPAM union representatives to examine how they are using union business leave – a state-funded contract perk that allows representatives to be paid when conducting union affairs on their shifts.
That practice has come under scrutiny by State Police Col. Kerry Gilpin, who sent a letter to the union on Sept. 28 alleging that union representatives have been improperly claiming business leave.
“A review of Department records suggests that SPAM is, in its administration of Article 6, distributing release time for activities that are not authorized by the CBA and/or law. For example, SPAM has, including but not limited to, distributed full eight hour paid days of release time to members attending their own disciplinary appeals at the Civil Service Commission and enabled a SPAM member disciplined for misconduct (suspended or forfeiting accrued time) to receive additional and unauthorized compensation from the Commonwealth,” Gilpin wrote. “Moreover, it appears that SPAM is authorizing and using release time (in full 8 hour increments) for members who are not scheduled to work for the Department, resulting in the improper accumulation and use of so-called “days-off lost.”
SPAM has sued to prevent Gilpin from changing union leave policy, which it argues are established in its labor contract.
But State Police have repeatedly denied requests for the payroll records of individual union representatives, claiming that they are exempt from the state’s public records law because their release could jeopardize a federal investigation.
On Dec. 7, MassLive requested the records of 13 union representatives. On Wednesday, weeks after the legal deadline for a response, State Police rejected that request.
The department is notorious among journalists and transparency advocates for withholding documents from the public. In 2015, Investigative Reporters and Editors named Massachusetts State Police the winner of its Golden Padlock Award – a prize handed out to the most secretive agency or public official in the U.S.
In its statement on the award, IRE dinged State Police for attempting to charge the Boston Globe $62,200 to produce records of police cruiser crashes and $42,750 to produce a log of its public records requests.
The agency’s response was in character.
“We have no comment on that,” a State Police spokesman told MassLive at the time.
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