Some Thruway Authority expense records kept secret

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - News 4 Investigates is considering taking legal action against the New York State Thruway Authority following a lengthy open records battle.

News 4 Investigates first filed a New York Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request last year to see how much the Thruway Authority pays out to its top executives and its board of directors. The request was for expenses – things like airfare, rental cars, meals and conferences.

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Timeline

On December 26 News 4 Investigates requested a database of all expenses paid for 2011, 2012, and 2013 for the Thruway’s board of directors and executive staff. News 4 also requested copies of supporting documents including “memos, receipts, credit card statements and reimbursements.”

The Thruway Authority’s records officer wrote back January 2 saying workers were “diligently searching” for the records. They planned to respond on or before April 1.

On April 1 News 4 received a letter saying the agency needed more time because the records “require[d] extensive review.” That’s when the attorney for LIN Media, WIVB-TV’s parent company, sent a letter questioning the Thruway’s stall tactics. The attorney wrote, “…You have failed to provide any…specific reasons why you are delaying release, so we must presume that the authority simply wishes to delay because there is information the authority does not wish to release to the public.”

The agency has failed to provide any information despite setting deadlines of May 13 and June 25.

The agency claims staff needs more time  “…in order to complete a thorough review of the nearly 3,000 records that have been deemed responsive to your request.” The Thruway’s new response date is July 24.

How do expenses fit into the Thruway Authority’s budget?

News 4 Investigates would like to find out how the board members’ and executives’ expenses fit into the Thruway’s overall budget. The authority’s 2013 Annual Report shows a $1.45 billion budget. Roughly 47% of the agency’s budget comes from Thruway revenues.

Thruway Authority Budget
Thruway Authority Budget, click to view larger

Dan Weiller, Director of Media Relations & Communications for the authority, declined to comment on the ongoing FOIL fight. He said the Thruway Authority FOIL office handles hundreds of thousands of pages of documents requested through the Freedom of Information Law every year. “Of the 304 such requests in 2013, to date, 99.5 percent of them have been completed,” Weiller said. “Of the 152 requests received in 2014 to date, 77 percent have been completed.”

News 4 Investigates contacted Donna Luh,of Depew, the only authority board member from Western New York. She reached out to the Albany office to inquire about the delay but was unable to obtain the information.

She said her expense information won’t show anything interesting. Luh wasn’t willing to comment about her colleagues.

Drivers react to ongoing records battle

News 4 Investigates spoke to drivers along the Thruway. All of them said the information should be released. “Government transparency is the buzzword of politicians, but it means absolutely nothing because they are not going to give it in the state, local or federal level,” Matt Williams said. He said he wasn’t surprised by our records battle.

Driver Dave Bralay said he finds all the Thruway’s tolls frustrating. “We just paid three big ones here in Buffalo.”

Williams also complained about tolls. He was in the midst of a family vacation. “We have to carry an extra little kitty with all the coins in it [to] make sure you have the right change.”

Truck driver Rober Minick encouraged News 4 Investigates to continue fighting for the open records. “I’ve had it up to here. I think a lot of people have with what’s going on,” he said referring to what he calls a lack of government transparency.

Lawmakers respond

“If you try to hide something, that often becomes the story,” New York Assemblyman Sean Ryan suggested. The Thruway Authority needs to hand over the information now, Ryan added.  “We shouldn’t be playing hide the ball with the public, but it makes you wonder, what is the thruway authority trying to hide?”

Ryan said News 4’s ongoing records fight is “…really an outrage…[that] affects how the public views their government.” He said he planned to send a letter to the authority urging that the records be made public.

“What you don’t want entities to do is keep kicking the can down the road. Thank you very much for your request. We’ll get back to you. And then we’ll get back to you. A lot of citizens lose steam;…they don’t have the energy or the time.”

News 4 Investigates asks “What can be done?”

Bob Freeman with the New York Committee on Open Government said anyone involved in records fights can appeal and sue.

News 4 is considering both options.

“The courts are becoming upset with agencies that are just saying no… or are dragging their feet,” Freeman said. “Delays, for better or for worse have become somewhat common.”

“In reality, [the delay] is not terribly surprising. The freedom of information law has become an industry and the reality is today, 2014, there are many more requests that are made today than in previous years,” he added.

Assemblyman Ryan wonders whether the FOIL Law needs strengthening, “We could give the committee on open government more power – but we could also attach fines for violations. Right now there’s no fine for a violation.”

News 4 Investigates will update this story on July 24 when the Thruway Authority promises to provide an update on the public information request.

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