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What are they hiding? Taxpayers foot legal bills to hide public records

Clark County and the Metropolitan Police Department spent more than $600,000 of taxpayer money in recent years on lengthy, unsuccessful legal battles to hide public information from the Las Vegas Review-Journal and its readers.

Since 2017, Las Vegas-based law firm Marquis Aurbach received nearly $118,000 from the county, and Metro had paid the firm approximately $490,000 to fight records requests in court, according to invoices obtained by the Review-Journal.

The newspaper filed lawsuits after the government agencies refused to release key public records, including autopsies and a police investigation into whether a state trooper attempted to hire a hitman.

Agencies frequently withhold requested documents from the media and the general public without proper justification.

An agency can only withhold records if there is an exemption to their release in state law, but the remedy to resolving a dispute about whether records are public is usually a court fight.

The legal battles often span years, causing costs to pile up. When the Review-Journal wins cases, taxpayers sometimes pay for both the government’s and the newspaper’s attorneys.

“It’s just a colossal waste of taxpayer money that the governmental entities force on us in their efforts to keep records secret,” said Benjamin Lipman, the newspaper’s chief legal officer.

Paying outside counsel in the fight to allow the agency to withhold public records is contrary to open government, UNLV journalism professor Stephen Bates said.

Too often, authorities “see the public and requests for records as sort of the enemy to be fought off or be given only the minimal amount necessary,” he said.

Clark County, Metro and Marquis Aurbach did not return requests for comment.

Record release delayed

Nevada law requires the prompt release of records, but the drawn-out legal battles cause massive delays.

In one case, Metro refused to release investigative documents into allegations that a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper tried to hire a confidential informant to harm his wife. The initial request was made in 2019, but the case has stretched into this year.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in March that Metro violated state law by withholding the records.

Taxpayers paid the law firm more than $40,000 for the court fight.

Earlier this year, a judge ordered Clark County to pay $337,000 in legal fees to the Review-Journal, following a four-year battle for public access to child autopsies.

The newspaper sought the records as part of an investigation into child protective services’ handling of cases in which children died.

The Review-Journal also has successfully sued government agencies in recent years to access records related to sex trafficking, the Alpine Motel fire and the Route 91 Harvest festival mass shooting.

Those court victories underscore the strength of Nevada’s public records laws, but they also highlight its shortcomings, Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said.

“These expenses rank among the very worst examples of government waste,” Cook said. “Here you have taxpayers denied access to important records of the public’s business, then stuck with the sizable legal bills for the bureaucracies fighting to keep those records secret. What a rip-off for the residents of Clark County.”

Since 2019, agencies have risked fines — ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 — if they “willfully” violate Nevada’s public records law. Lipman said judges have not imposed penalties against governments in the cases the Review-Journal has won, and he is unaware of penalties in other cases. The newspaper has repeatedly been awarded its legal fees.

The “What Are They Hiding?” column was created to educate Nevadans about transparency laws, inform readers about Review-Journal coverage being stymied by bureaucracies and shame public officials into being open with the hardworking people who pay all of government’s bills. Were you wrongly denied access to public records? Share your story with us at whataretheyhiding@reviewjournal.com.

Contact Jessica Hill at jehill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on X. Review-Journal data editor Michael Scott Davidson contributed to this report.

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