Government officials would be fined for wrongfully denying access to public records or improperly shielding legislative meetings from view under a pair of proposals from New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor).
The first bill would amend the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), the legal mechanism to request government records, to fine officials up to $1,500 if a court finds that an agency had no reasonable basis for denying access to public records. The second bill would strengthen the Open Meetings Law (OML), which requires public access to government meetings, to enact fines up to $2,000 for any member of a public body that intentionally violates the law.
“There’s a famous saying that sunshine is the best disinfectant. I couldn’t agree more,” Thiele said. “The penalties provided for under current statute simply have not been strong enough to ensure compliance, and this has been made even more apparent throughout the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Thiele’s bills come after Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come under investigation for underreporting the state’s nursing home death toll. A government watchdog group sued the state for records documenting the deaths, prompting a court to order the state to finally release the information nearly a year after the pandemic began.
Under Thiele’s proposal, an agency that defies a court order to release documents would be fined up to $500 per day until the records are turned over. And the official convicted of violating the OML would be forced to pay the fines themselves and not be reimbursed by the government.