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Judge rules in KOAA News5’s favor for open records

Posted at 2:35 PM, Jun 11, 2024

PUEBLO COUNTY — A Pueblo County judge has ruled in KOAA News5's favor after a months-long open records fight.

It all started in September, I made a request under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) to obtain information about employees at the Colorado Mental Health Hospital in Pueblo (CMHHIP).

Sources told us several employees were being placed on administrative leave, sometimes for months at a time.

We first requested documentation of employees placed on investigatory administrative leave for more than 20 consecutive days, which must be tracked and documented for the state. The request was made to the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) which is the state agency over the hospital.

When I received the documentation, all employee names were redacted.

So then I requested employment applications of anyone placed on administrative leave, state law says those records do not fall under "personnel files" and are public under the Colorado Open Records Act.

The department said it would release those records, but when I asked if the information, such as employee names, would be redacted they said yes.

I asked why they would be able to redact the information and CDHS cited a state statute "24-72-204(2(a) (Ix)(A)-(B), (3)(a)(IV)" saying it would identify employees on leave related to a civil investigation.

That's when we got the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition involved.

Attorney Steve Zansberg wrote a letter on our behalf laying out the reasons why they could not redact the information and needed to provide the records. Specifically, a legal precedent that showed the statute it cited excludes investigations into the conduct of CDHS employees.

Our attorney urged them to reconsider to avoid taking the matter to court.

The department did not reconsider, and instead sued News5 first before we filed, our attorney argued this was a way for them to try and avoid paying our attorney fees.

In February we went to court, where CDHS brought four witnesses to testify about the process of denying those records.

News5 learned over the weekend the judge sided with KOAA saying the department's denial was not proper and they did not act in good faith by filing in court first.

News5 has sent payment for these records and we're working to get ahold of them, the judge ruled we are also entitled to coverage of attorney fees.

When it comes to taking a state agency to court, we believe this information should be public and in the public's interest. As journalists, it's our job to fight for transparency when state agencies are not giving us the information we need.

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