In his first state of the state address, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared, “Our government needs to operate at the speed of business.” Two years ago, his office highlighted the progress of government agencies “working more productively, more efficiently, and doing so at a lesser cost to taxpayers.”
But Ducey’s office hasn’t adopted the brisk speed and efficiency of the private sector when responding to requests for public documents, as required by Arizona law.
Of the 76 public records requests processed by the governor’s office in 2017, the average wait time was 3.6 months, according to a Phoenix New Times analysis of a log of records requests. The median wait time was 72 days. A handful of requests lingered in the governor’s office for around a year before the records were finally turned over to the person who asked for them.
Dan Barr, a local attorney who represents the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, called the monthslong delays from Ducey’s office for public records “ridiculous.”
“Clearly, they’re daring news organizations to sue them because public records law requires that public bodies respond promptly to a public records request,” Barr said.
Indeed, under Arizona law, the custodian of records at any public body must provide copies “promptly” upon request. But unlike some other states, public records law in Arizona does not lay out a specific time frame for when an agency must provide a response.
Public records provide a window into the workings of federal, state, and local government. Details contained in records, obtained by journalists through public records requests, are often essential to groundbreaking investigative reporting.
Barr explained that for the purposes of daily journalism, a long delay when returning records can be the equivalent of denying the request outright. “They can delay it long enough where, for a lot of the requestors, they either give up or the information’s not useful. It’s not newsworthy any more,” Barr said.
However, the longest delays in Ducey’s office happened not because of a records request from a journalist, but from a liberal super PAC. The governor’s office took an extremely long time when responding to requests submitted on behalf of the research-focused progressive political action committee American Bridge 21st Century.
By scouring voting records, hiring “trackers” to film candidates on the trail, and filing reams of public records requests, American Bridge supplies research on Republicans in the time-honored tradition of digging up dirt on political opponents. The information then usually fuels campaign talking points and negative ads.
Two employees of American Bridge, Emma Brown and Kathleen Casey, submitted two requests to the governor’s office in summer 2017 related to health care and climate change communications. But these requests were not fulfilled by Ducey’s staff for well over a year, according to the office’s internal log.
With the 2018 election a little more than a month away, Ducey’s office provided the records to American Bridge on October 2 and September 27 – delays of 15 and 13 months, respectively.
Another request from American Bridge in October 2017, which the governor’s office staff described as relating to “freedom of speech,” was delayed for about six months. A request asking for emails and documents pertaining to Medicaid, submitted in August 2017, was not fulfilled until the end of May 2018 — a delay of about 300 days.
Zach Hudson, a spokesperson for American Bridge, wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times, “It took nearly a year to get even the most basic requests back from Ducey’s office.”
Complicating the requests, Hudson explained, was the fact that Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for the governor, left to work on Ducey’s 2018 re-election campaign without providing a new point of contact or follow-up email.
“Unfortunately, this is not exclusive to Ducey’s office,” Hudson wrote. “Obstructing/not complying with public records requests is a tactic Republicans across the country are deploying more and more to hide what they’re doing from the voters.”
The delays in providing records evidently haven’t dented the careers of the people handling the requests. A recent staff shakeup in Ducey’s office following the election elevated several people with experience in his communications shop, a department which is typically responsible for processing and fulfilling records requests.
Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesperson who has worked for Ducey in government and on the campaign trail, is the governor’s new chief of staff. He replaced Kirk Adams, whose last day was on December 14.
Ptak is back in the governor’s office following Ducey’s re-election victory, this time as director of communications. Daniel Ruiz, who served as the governor’s interim communications director, has been promoted to senior adviser, overseeing the communications and constituent services offices, the governor’s office announced on December 13.
Ducey’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
As it happens, New Times requested the list of 2017 records requests to the governor’s office and the date each request was fulfilled on June 29. The governor’s office provided the records on November 21, nearly five months later.