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Published: Wednesday, 7/6/2011

Public-records law draws complaints


COLUMBUS -- The Ohio Legislature has significantly reduced the civil penalties for improperly destroying public records, drawing fire from newspaper publishers and others who say the change effectively does away with a deterrent that prevented local governments from ridding shelves of controversial items.

A measure signed into law by Gov. John Kasich last week places a $10,000 limit per case on fines an agency can be ordered to pay when sued for destroying records. It also limits attorney fees to $10,000 and requires suits to be brought within five years of a record's destruction.

There were no such limits previously.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati lawyer, said the modification was prompted by a $1.4 million initial finding against the city of Bucyrus for recording more than 911 tapes from the 1990s. The law had said that agencies could be sued for $1,000 per destroyed document, with no maximum. Supporters of the new cap said people requested records they didn't want but knew were destroyed so they could sue for a large payday.

Opponents of the limits say the law was working as intended and that caps will make most Ohioans unable to afford lawsuits when records are destroyed.

"Destroyed public employee records, evidence of police wrongdoing, evidence of environmental and human health dangers ... could all go away for a simple $10,000 fine," said Trent Dougherty, Ohio Environmental Council director of legal affairs.

But Mr. Seitz said the legislation protects taxpayers' pocketbooks from greedy lawyers. If records are destroyed to cover up corruption, officials still could face criminal charges such as obstruction of justice and tampering with records, he noted.

"If anybody thinks that a $10,000 penalty and $10,000 in attorney fees is not a sufficient deterrent, then I would remind them that if the destruction is willful ... we have a whole battery of criminal laws that still apply," he said.

Mr. Seitz said the changes have the support of groups representing Ohio townships, counties, other municipalities and school boards, and the Ohio Historical Society.

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