Cameron’s office agreed to $99,750 settlement in lawsuit over ‘ballot integrity’ task force records

By: - January 31, 2024 5:50 am

Then-gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron speaks during the 143rd Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

Former Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office agreed to pay $99,750 to settle a long-running open records dispute in December just days before Cameron left to become CEO of an organization devoted to combatting “woke capitalism,” among other objectives.

American Oversight, an open records advocacy group based in Washington D.C., had sued Cameron’s office in 2020 soon after he became attorney general, alleging his office was refusing to release records related to a “ballot integrity” task force he co-chaired, the Kentucky Lantern reported last year.

The request was part of a broader inquiry American Oversight was conducting in multiple states regarding such task forces.

The lawsuit, filed in Franklin Circuit Court, alleged Cameron initially refused to release records it sought, then failed to fully comply after a judge ruled he must provide them.

The case became a battle over how the Kentucky Attorney General — who is the primary arbiter of open records disputes involving all state and local agencies — must handle requests for records from its own office.

American Oversight “got stonewalled by the attorney general,” said Amye Bensenhaver, co-director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, which tracks access to public information.

Cameron’s office entered the settlement with American Oversight, which sought compensation for legal costs and penalties for withheld records, nine days before his term as attorney general ended.

Russell Coleman

The Dec. 22 settlement agreement, provided by the office of Russell Coleman who succeeded Cameron as attorney general, denies any liability and said the sole purpose is to  settle the dispute and avoid further litigation.

Cameron did not respond to a request for comment through his new employer, the The 1792 Exchange.

That group, which hired Cameron, a Republican, after he lost the 2023 governor’s race to Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear, is dedicated to opposing “woke capitalism” and defending “free exercise, free speech and free enterprise,” according to its website. It is named after the year the first American stock exchange was founded.

After Cameron refused the initial records request from American Oversight, the group, under state law,  appealed to Cameron’s office which upheld its own decision. American Oversight then challenged the denial in court.

Bensenhaver said she was pleased by the outcome.

Court fight raises doubts about Cameron’s commitment to transparency

“The chief takeway from the settlement,” Bensenhaver said in an email, “is the affirmation that the attorney general is subject to the same standard of strict open records compliance when he receives a request for records of his agency that his office applies to all other public agencies in adjudicating disputes involving discharge of their public records duties.”

However, Besenhaver, who previously worked for 25 years in Kentucky as an assistant attorney general reviewing open records cases and writing opinions, said it’s unfortunate that taxpayers bear the cost, noting the nearly $100,000 payment “is not insignificant.”

And Bensenhaver said it’s also unfortunate the case won’t set a legal precedent since it was resolved through a settlement before a final court ruling.

Still, she said she hopes Coleman, a Republican who became attorney general in January, considers the case in future open records decisions from his office, saying “General Coleman should embrace the lessons this case imparts.”

Bensenhaver called “groundbreaking” an opinion in the case by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd in which he said agencies must make an effort to locate and produce public records and not demand specific “search terms” or the location of documents.

“To place the burden on the requestor is to invite the agency to hide relevant records that are obscurely labeled or stored in deep recesses of its bureaucratic records system,” Shepherd’s opinion said. “It is the duty of the agency to conduct an open, thorough and good faith search of its records in response to an open records request.”

The settlement agreement doesn’t specify the purpose of the payment but American Oversight had been seeking lawyers’ fees, costs and penalties for what it said were violations of Kentucky’s open records law.

The agreement says the parties would ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit as settled once the funds were paid to American Oversight.

Court records in the case show such a request was filed and the case dismissed Jan. 22.

Bensenhaver said she never understood why Cameron’s office fought against release of routine records, such as schedules and records of meetings, from the Ballot Integrity Task Force, which serves as an advisory commission to monitor elections.

“I think it’s kind of fascinating that he’s going to erect these barriers to fairly innocuous records,” she told the Lantern last year.

Heather Sawyer, executive director of American Oversight, said records the group obtained in Kentucky showed the “ballot integrity” task force produced  no evidence of any widespread election problems that had been alleged in Kentucky and other states after the 2020 presidential election in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump.

“It’s unfortunate that Kentucky officials falsely claimed widespread voter fraud to justify a toothless ‘task force’ and then wasted thousands of taxpayers dollars before conceding that it was only ‘a discussion group’ that did ‘not take actions or implement policy,’” Sawyer said in a statement. “Thanks to Kentucky’s Open Records law, Kentuckians now know that this so-called task force was nothing more than an expensive political stunt.”

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Deborah Yetter
Deborah Yetter

Deborah Yetter is an independent journalist who previously worked for 38 years for The Courier Journal, where she focused on child welfare and health and human services. She lives in Louisville and has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Louisville. She is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

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