Coroner must pay RJ’s legal fees for withholding public records

A District Court judge ordered the Clark County coroner to pay about $32,000 in legal costs to the Las Vegas Review-Journal after refusing to release public records to the newspaper.

The newspaper filed a lawsuit in July seeking reports about recent deaths that Coroner John Fudenberg had withheld. Judge Jim Crockett in September rejected all arguments by the Clark County district attorney’s office and told the coroner’s office to release the records.

Keith Moyer, the Review-Journal’s editor-in-chief, said the ruling sends a clear message that government agencies cannot keep vital public records secret.

“This is a waste of taxpayer dollars that could have been avoided,” Moyer said. “This is a lesson for every other government entity that refuses to open public records to scrutiny: You will be sued, you will lose in court and your constituents will pay.

“The county should release the records immediately,” Moyer said. “If the county appeals this decision and delays payment or the release of the autopsy records, the expense to taxpayers will only grow.”

The district attorney’s office, which represented the coroner, argued officials could withhold the records because they included private medical information. The county also said state law prohibits the release of the records because the documents are reviewed by committees that investigate suspicious deaths.

“I think awarding those fees is an indication that the Review-Journal was right all along,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

Crockett ruled that autopsies are open to inspection because there is no exception in the state’s public records law that allows officials to withhold the information.

The county had until the end of the year to produce the records.

But county commissioners voted in November to appeal Crockett’s verdict with only Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak and Commissioner Jim Gibson siding with the judge.

Laura C. Rehfeldt, a deputy district attorney, declined comment. It is not clear if the office will appeal the award.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter.

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