In a nice cautionary tale for government agents who refuse to take public records requests seriously, Washington state political blogger Stefan Sharkansky won a $225,000 settlement last week from a county government that took two years to comply with his request for information. The settlement ended Sharkansky's lawsuit against King County over officials' improper delay in producing documents related to the state's 2004 gubernatorial election.
Sadly, the victory is bittersweet. Sharkansky says the documents reveal that King County officials counted hundreds of ineligible ballots in an election decided by 133 votes. If Sharkansky is right, timely production of the records could have had a significant impact on an election that took two recounts and a trial to settle.
Nonetheless, Sharkansky's story is a great example of how bloggers can contribute to the public dialogue. Sharkansky saw a hole in news coverage of an important event and took it upon himself to fill it. Doing so didn't require any specialized journalistic knowledge, save for a few basics on freedom of information that one can easily acquire in a quick glance at CMLP's Legal Guide.
On a related note, it seems that Washington is turning into one of the more open states in terms of access to government information. The state has relatively expansive freedom of information laws, and recent decisions show that the judiciary at least takes them seriously. Washington courts have laid down some whopping judgments against violators: a cursory search shows verdicts of $514,000 and $124,000, the latter of which an appeals court determined to be too low a punishment for infraction.
For more information, see CMLP Legal Threats Database entry King County v. Sharkansky.
Hat tip to Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for the story.