Attorney claims senator has conflict
In his other role as a Republican state senator, Summit County deputy attorney David Thomas is pushing legislation many of his critics say would limit the amount of information citizens can obtain from the government.
Thomas co-chairs the Capitol Hill legislative task force that recently approved three draft bills that would make substantial changes to Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
The 13-year-old law guarantees access to information for journalists and other members of the public who want to know how their government conducts business. They claim if lawmakers change GRAMA, elected officials would be allowed to govern more often behind closed doors.
But the GRAMA laws are outdated, Thomas said, during a recent interview.
Written before the advent of e-mail, the legislation is "silent" about whether politicians’ computer correspondences should be made public, he added.
Thomas claims amending GRAMA to allow the public to obtain some electronic letters is "actually opening up areas that haven’t been opened before."
In his job as deputy county attorney, Thomas routinely helps process requests for information from reporters, landowners, developers and attorneys, filed under the state’s GRAMA statute. Michael Hutchings, an attorney in Salt Lake, says the Summit County Attorney’s Office has illegally denied his requests for county officials’ e-mails. Hutchings, who represents the firm Anderson Development, filed millions of dollars worth of development-related lawsuits against the county this year. "I know it’s an absolute legitimate connection and I know [Thomas has] got e-mails that he’s trying to protect," Hutchings told The Park Record. "What he needs to do is disclose to his colleagues like good legislators should I don’t think he’s disclosed it to his colleagues." He added that his client has been unsuccessful at obtaining e-mails sent by Summit County attorneys to government officials in other jurisdictions concerning a future development planned in Silver Creek. Hutchings says he is suing current and past Summit County commissions, planners and attorneys, including Thomas, because they prefer "government in the dark." "You need someone in the [Summit County Attorney’s Office] that will say to their client, ‘you can’t do this, legally,’" Hutchings said, blaming the county’s legal woes on bad advice from county attorneys. "He’s trying to protect other people at the county that have been involved in illegal behavior and [Thomas] does not want the press and he does not want the landowners to know what they’ve been doing."
This year, Hutchings filed a fair housing lawsuit in federal court against Summit County on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Another federal action filed this year by Hutchings against the county, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) law, accuses the government of illegal corruption. Meanwhile, in an unusual legal action, on Aug. 17, Hutchings asked a Third District Court judge to remove County Commissioners Bob Richer, Ken Woolstenhulme and Sally Elliott, Thomas and several county planners from their positions. His lawsuit claims they "have refused to perform duties imposed by law and have willfully performed acts prohibited by law." But his position on the task force examining GRAMA is not related to legal battles in the county, Thomas countered.
He added that e-mails Hutchings wants are protected by attorney-client privilege and not relevant to the legislative debate. "Everybody’s got their agenda, certainly," Thomas said, adding that Hutchings is engaging in more dirty tactics in an effort to exploit zoning rules in the Snyderville Basin. However, with attorneys poised to bury Summit County in GRAMA requests in anticipation of multiple court trials, Thomas has a lot to gain by changing the rules, Hutchings said. "That’s what his motivation is," Hutchings said. "[Thomas has] had some very serious allegations brought against him."
But Utah lawmakers are "citizen" legislators many with day jobs, Thomas said, adding that he filed a disclosure on the Hill that identifies his position in Summit County.
Though, according to state Democratic Sen. Fred Fife III, commenting on Hutchings’ criticism of Thomas, "it’s one thing to reveal a job, but I wasn’t aware of anything like that, and especially any refusal (by Thomas) to give up any e-mails."
As a member of the GRAMA task force, Fife says he doesn’t have a "comfortable feeling" about the changes proposed by lawmakers.
"That’s interesting," Fife said about the possibility that Thomas didn’t adequately inform his colleagues about his involvement with GRAMA.
"This does raise some red flags."
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