by Paul Heintz
UPDATED BELOW with Brock’s public records request, which was filed Thursday morning with five state entities. The Shumlin administration says it will comply with the request, but notes that it is “enormous” and “will take significant time and resources.”
Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) capped off the final debate of his gubernatorial campaign Wednesday with a peculiar question for Gov. Peter Shumlin:
"Gov. Shumlin, I'm told the state has spent thousands of dollars on settlements or claims ranging from discrimination to wrongful termination to sexual harassment involving state employees and officials," Brock said during the forum, which was sponsored by the Burlington Free Press. "I've also been told that the state has attempted to hide this misconduct by improperly insisting on confidentiality agreements as part of these settlements."
After citing Vermont's public records law, Brock got to his question: "Wouldn't you agree that these cases — especially when public money is involved — should not be kept secret from the public? And will you insist that your administration will open up these settlements whether litigation is involved or not so that the public can see where its money is spent?"
So what on earth was Brock talking about?
We asked him that after the debate, but he wouldn't say much — except that his campaign or someone close to it plans to file a public records request related to the question.
Brock said he plans to ask for any information "regarding claims or allegations of discrimination, misconduct, unlawful discharge, sexual harassment involving any employer or official elected or appointed in the state of Vermont."
And he wants copies of checks, emails, memoranda, settlement agreements and pretty much anything else related to such claims or allegations.
Thirteen days before the election, is Brock going fishing?
Asked why he's making the request, the Franklin County Republican simply said, "Because it's information that I think is in the public interest, and I won't disclose anything further than that."
Is there a particular incident you're concerned about?
"I'm not prepared to say at this point," he said.
Uh, this seems kind of random and out of the blue. What's driving you to do this?
"It has been suggested to me that there are such payments that involve public money that would be important for the public to know about," he explained.
We went around and around like that for a bit, but Brock wouldn't budge — nor would he say who suggested to him that any such payments have taken place.
"Someone has certainly told me, but whether it's true or not I have no idea," he said. "Whether there's anything there or not, I don't know. And more than one person has told me that there are issues involving claims in which the state has paid money as a result of those claims, and that has not been made public, and I think that's a matter of public interest."
Anyway, back to the Freeps debate.
In response to Brock's question about whether he'd disclose any settlements to the public, Shumlin argued that his administration has, in fact, been quite transparent.
"The only reason we have agreements like that is to protect, in many cases, employees who have a complaint against the state and to protect their privacy or the privacy of the people they work with," Shumlin said. "So I won't agree to your pledge today. I will tell you that wherever possible, I encourage my administration to let the sun shine in."
Brock pushed back against his opponent, saying, "The open records law is clear. It says that any settlements are public after the litigation is finalized. And the question is will you adhere to the requirements of the public records law?"
Shumlin said he believed his administration does comply with public records law and, as you might imagine, the two went back and forth on the point until the governor found a way to put an end to the discussion.
"I'm going to invite you to debate this with my legal counsel, Sarah London. Meanwhile, I'm going to go focus on creating jobs for Vermonters," the gov said and then summoned his inner Willem Lange. "I gotta get back to work."
We tried to reach London so we could debate her, but ended up speaking with Steven Collier, general counsel for the Department of Human Resources.
Collier took issue with Brock's assertion, arguing that the state isn't hiding anything and, in fact, is always happy to disclose the financial terms of the settlements it reaches.
"We do not, as a state, enter into confidentiality agreements when we're settling for money. Period," he said.
While certain details of an allegation or complaint may be confidential, he explained, settlements themselves are a matter of public record.
"If we're expending money, I believe the public has a right to know," he said.
That being the case, if Brock's trolling for fish, maybe he'll catch one. Or maybe he won't. We're guessing he'll tell us if he does.
Either way, he should probably get that records request in soon. The state's supposed to respond to such requests within three days but can take 10 to comply — and, as of this writing, there's only 13 left 'til Election Day.
UPDATED AT 11 a.m.: True to his word, Sen. Brock filed public records requests Thursday morning with Gov. Shumlin’s office and four other state entities. As we reported yesterday, the requests seek information relating to “claims or allegations of discrimination, misconduct, wrongful discharge or sexual harassment involving any employee or official, elected or appointed, of the State of Vermont.”
Read the request here: Download Brock Public Records Request 10-25-12 GPS
Brock’s campaign says it delivered the same request to Attorney General Bill Sorrell, State Treasurer Beth Pearce, Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon and Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy.
Collier, the Department of Human Resources general counsel, said in an email Thursday morning that the administration will respond to Brock’s request “within the timeframes and parameters established by the Public Records Act — as we do when any other citizen or organization requests information.”
“Senator Brock broadly requests all documents related to any claim or allegation of misconduct, discrimination, wrongful discharge or sexual harassment,” Collier adds. “The State has thousands of employees and Senator Brock’s request is enormous, so it will take significant time and resources to evaluate his request, and the related privacy and public interests.”
Also, a note of clarification: I wrote yesterday that the state has to respond to such requests within three days and must fully comply within ten. But I neglected a key detail. We’re talking business days, folks. Since Brock submitted his requests Thursday morning, the state has until Thursday, Nov. 8 to comply. And the election is on Nov. 6. Just sayin’.
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