BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Attorney General Jeff Landry is arguing that Louisiana’s public records law doesn’t apply to out-of-staters, so he can’t be penalized for his slow response to turn documents over to a researcher who sued him while living in Indiana.
The Republican attorney general wants a state district judge to dismiss the lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge by Scarlett Martin, who sought records about Landry’s dealings with the oil industry as well as financial penalties for his delays in producing them.
Landry’s office said that because Martin lives in Indianapolis, she doesn’t have the right to sue under Louisiana public records law.
“Non-citizens do not enjoy the same rights as Louisiana citizens in that regard, and the attorney general cannot be compelled to bear the burden and cost of producing records requested by those non-citizens,” Landry’s assistant attorney general Carey T. Jones wrote in a Dec. 26 court filing.
Martin’s lawyer responded in court Wednesday, saying nothing in the state’s public records law limits its application to Louisiana citizens.
“Landry does not bother to provide any statute or jurisprudence that supports the contention that only citizens of Louisiana – to the exclusion of all others – are entitled to the transparent production of public records from duly elected custodians,” attorney Christopher Whittington wrote.
A trial in the case is set for Jan. 10.
In September and October 2016, Martin sought copies of correspondence between Landry, his staff and representatives of companies or trade associations “involved in the exploration for and production of hydrocarbons,” as well as records involving Landry’s travel to conferences and public appearances, vehicle purchases and contracts to hire outside law firms.
Martin said she paid $250 for the requested copies but didn’t get them 175 days after filing the records requests, despite repeated assertions from the attorney general’s office that the documents were forthcoming. She then sued Landry in March 2017, accusing the attorney general of violating Louisiana’s public records law. She asked the judge to require Landry to pay her lawyer’s fees and to fine him. Under Louisiana law, a judge can levy civil penalties up to $100 per day for public records violations.
Landry’s office said it has now handed over 10,000 documents, providing all the information Martin sought. The attorney general’s office acknowledges “the machinery of production was not perfect and could have been more efficient,” but said it objects to paying penalties or Martin’s attorney fees.
Landry’s office said Louisiana public records law, like its open meetings law, is aimed at letting Louisiana citizens directly participate in and monitor the actions of their government agencies.
“The state, however, does not extend the compact with its citizens to non-citizens and residents of other states and countries,” Jones writes.
It’s unclear why Martin wanted the records. The court files don’t say, her lawyer said it doesn’t matter and Martin didn’t immediately respond Thursday to messages from The Associated Press.
“She’s a researcher,” Whittington said. “The reason why they want something is not relevant under the law.”
Landry’s office suggested the records request was political, noting that Whittington was a Democratic leader several years ago.
“The lawsuit is nothing more than a money grab by the former Louisiana Democratic Party chairman working with an out-of-state political operative,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Bill Stiles said in a statement. “Since 2016, our office has spent thousands of hours processing hundreds of public record requests, many of which are like this one: politically-motivated. We work as diligently as possible to fulfill these swiftly.”