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EDITORIAL: DA must release witness payment records

This newspaper, through this page, champions a lot of ideas and causes. But none is more important than your right to know what your governments are doing.

More and more, your governments don’t want you to know what they’re doing. You should care because you pay the government’s bills through your taxes. If you can’t see what you’re paying for, you’re perfectly justified in asking, “What does my government have to hide?”

The Review-Journal fights a lot of battles for public records. Our journalists are constantly confronted with stalling and stonewalling. But the law is on your side: government records are presumed to be open. It’s our job to ensure you have access to government and to report what your governments are doing.

Last week, the Review-Journal sued Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson for refusing to provide the newspaper with records related to his office’s witness payment program. The program started long before Mr. Wolfson became the county’s top prosecutor in 2012, but he refuses to be forthcoming about the off-budget checking account and how its funds are spent. What he has provided has been heavily redacted: case numbers, names of witnesses and reasons for payments. He has redacted or refused to provide other records, as well. We don’t have the full picture.

“The payments from the district attorney’s office to or on behalf of witnesses raise important constitutional rights issues,” said the newspaper’s attorney, Maggie McLetchie. “The DA’s office’s apparent failure to provide the information to the defense in criminal cases has become an issue that is being litigated in a number of cases. It raises questions about fair trials and the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

We’re taking Mr. Wolfson to court, and seeking an expedited hearing and order for him to fulfill our records requests, because the records are of such public interest — and because he is in such clear violation of the law.

Public agencies, including the district attorney’s office, would like the public to believe that staff are burdened by the time required to satisfy a mountain of broad records requests. But this newspaper hasn’t thrown a wide net as part of a fishing expedition, hoping to catch something, anything. In this case — indeed, in almost all cases — our requests have been specific and targeted. And they have yielded important records, including information on the witness payment program.

The district attorney’s office kept these payments hidden for years and will continue to do so if not forced to come clean.

Mr. Wolfson said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Too many public officials like to brag in public about their embrace of openness while privately taking steps to keep nosy citizens and reporters at bay. One way they do this: unnecessarily mixing private information (such as Social Security numbers) with public information, which delays the completion of records requests because staff must redact data — or try to deny a release altogether.

There is a perception — especially among bureaucrats — that Nevada’s public records law exists only to enable pesky reporters. In fact, plenty of records requests come from typical taxpayers. So when governments stonewall us, everyone pays the price through precedent and practice. However, this newspaper has the forum and resources that average citizens do not. And we’re not afraid to use them to spread a little sunlight.

Mr. Wolfson’s actions raise two questions: What is he hiding, and why? We’ll soon find out, one way or another.

Government records belong to you, not to the government. We’ll do whatever it takes to defend your right to know.

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