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Thursday, August 1, 2019

After Director is Fired, New York State Must Now Strengthen the Public's Right To Know

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman, the long-time Director of New York State's Committee on Open Government is out. He was accused of sexually harassing a female reporter. Now, a month later, more women have come forward to complain about him.

With the change in leadership, people in New York State want - and need - better laws to protect their rights in making government transparent. And, employees who have higher morals and/or are monitored more closely.

Betsy Combier
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Expert's Ouster Provides Chance to Strengthen Public's Right to Know
The Buffalo News, By 

But his ouster, rather than sending good-government types into crisis mode, actually provides an opportunity to do what was never done during his tenure: Put real teeth in the state’s laws to protect the public’s right to know.
While he was the go-to expert for anyone interested in applying New York’s anemic laws to public officials who regularly flout them with impunity, Robert J. Freeman was never known for pushing the envelope for stronger laws like those in other states.
The public should demand that a new executive director – to be appointed by the governor  – be committed to doing just that.
"I think there should be much stronger direct enforcement," said Susan Lerner, Common Cause New York executive director, putting her finger on a key weakness of New York’s Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws.
Rather than going after government bodies and officials who ignore the rules, the Committee on Open Government – which Freeman headed – merely issues advisory opinions. Instead of empowering that agency, New York’s laws put the burden on individuals to hire a lawyer, file suit on their own and then wait a year or two to try to recover attorney’s fees if they win.
That’s in contrast to states like Florida, where local state attorneys can prosecute violators and $500 fines can be imposed; or Connecticut, where the state’s Freedom of Information Commission can hold hearings and impose fines of $20 to $1,000 on violators or those found to have filed frivolous complaints.
Besides lacking enforcement mechanisms with teeth, New York’s laws fall short in myriad other ways that have been well documented by the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, which has gotten statewide attention for its reports on local government failures to comply with current laws, as weak as they are.
The coalition – which monitors government meetings, examines websites and prods local officials – has called for New York’s Open Meetings Law to be amended to mandate that meeting agendas and supporting documents be published online at least 72 hours before a meeting, that minutes be posted within two weeks after the meeting and that the public be allowed to speak before lawmakers vote.
Coalition President Paul Wolf notes that bodies like the Buffalo Common Council and Erie County Legislature typically let citizens speak at committee meetings only. Though that's important because it is where issues are first hashed out, the public gets no voice at the action meetings where matters are formally decided.
"At every public meeting, there should be an opportunity to hear from the public," said Wolf, an attorney who heads the volunteer organization. "New York’s law is very weak. It greatly needs to be amended to bring it up to modern times."
That includes giving someone enforcement authority, he added, pointing to the same shortcoming Lerner highlighted. At the very least, the coalition wants the state comptroller to do compliance audits so the public knows which agencies are following the law and which are not.
Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny points to an entirely different problem – there are so many to choose from – with New York’s laws: agencies are drowning in the volume of Freedom of Information Law requests they get, which gives them an excuse to delay responding to ones they don’t want to respond to.
As an example, Kaehny said when his group looked at FOI requests to New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it found that two-thirds of the 9,000 requests were for police incident reports, which shouldn’t require such a rigorous process in the first place. Streamlining things by putting more such information online would help clear up the backlog and also allow the public to know how many requests are being filed and how they’re being dealt with, something he said no one has a handle on now.
"You can make the Freedom of Information Law work better for more people," he said.
At the end of the day, though, it still comes down to enforcement and having someone at the committee who will use his or her bully pulpit to press for the kinds of changes New York needs.
When an Erie County Legislature chairman infamously bragged years ago that he "went into another room" to technically avoid a quorum, and a former state senator said he wasn’t going to worry about "technical rules" when shutting out the public, it’s clear that New York’s weak laws encourage public officials to dis citizens.
Kaehny is not sure fines are the answer because he fears judges would be loath to impose them. But that’s not a problem elsewhere.
In 2004, a county commissioner in Florida served 49 days in jail as the first person incarcerated under the open meetings section of that state’s Sunshine Law. Nor has the state let up since then. Earlier this year, two council members in a Florida town were fined $200 and $100, respectively, for holding an illegal meeting.
New York needs laws with that kind of teeth – and an open government advocate who will forcefully push for them.
Robert Freeman, NY open-government expert, avoids charges for photos of nude women on state computer
, Albany BureauPublished 3:38 p.m. ET July 11, 2019
ALBANY – New York State Police has declined to bring charges against Robert Freeman, the former head of the state Committee on Open Government, after investigating photos of nude and scantily-clad women found on his work computer.

Deanna Cohen, a spokeswoman for State Police, confirmed Thursday the agency has closed its investigation into Freeman's use of his work computer without filing charges.

Freeman, 72, a state employee who acted as New York's in-house advocate for government transparency, was abruptly fired June 24 after Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro found he acted in a "sexually inappropriate manner" toward a Journal News/ reporter who sought his professional advice on the state Open Meetings Law.

The Westchester County District Attorney's Office, which had been investigating his meeting with the reporter, ultimately declined to bring charges against Freeman.

Tagliafierro's preliminary investigation also turned up a "copious" number of inappropriate images of women on Freeman's state-owned computer as well as a series of "sexually suggestive emails and photographic images" on his official email account, which were turned over to State Police.

After 2 1/2 weeks of investigation, State Police closed the case without bringing charges.

Cohen declined further comment Thursday.
Another investigation expands.
As State Police ends its investigation, Tagliafierro's investigation into Freeman appears to be

At least four women who say Freeman harassed them have been contacted by the Inspector General's Office in recent weeks as the agency continues to look into his conduct during his 43 years as executive director of the state committee dedicated to government transparency.

The investigators' outreach came after the USA TODAY Network in New York on June 27 detailed on-the-record claims by eight women who say Freeman acted inappropriately during meetings and phone calls that were supposed to be of a professional nature.

Some of the women said Freeman gave them unwanted kisses on the face or uncomfortable hugs that lasted too long.

Others said he made remarks about their physical appearance, sometimes after pulling up their photo online while on the phone. Two women said he repeatedly invited them on long walks, where he would put his hand on the small of their back or waist.
Longtime source for reporters

For more than four decades, Freeman was New York's foremost expert on the state' Freedom of Information and open meetings laws, serving as a state-employed ombudsman.

Freeman was a trusted source for reporters and members of the public who ran into issues accessing public information or meetings from the state or their local government. He traveled the state and country to speak about government transparency, often with college students looking to break into journalism or government.

His firing came after the Journal News/ reporter filed separate complaints with the Inspector General's Office and the Mount Pleasant Police Department last month.

The reporter, Aisha Powell, said Freeman encouraged her to meet with him May 23 at a Westchester diner after she had reached out to him with questions about the state Open Meetings Law.

During the meeting, Powell says Freeman repeatedly stared at her chest and made remarks about her appearance and race. Afterward, Powell says Freeman moved her braids away from her face and touched her back, waist and buttocks as they left the diner and talked in the parking lot.

Before she got in her car, Freeman took her head with both hands and kissed her "just shy of the mouth," Powell said in her complaints.

Freeman has not commented publicly since his firing and declined comment Thursday after answering the door at his Albany-area home.

According to a June 24 letter from Tagliafierro to his boss, Freeman admitted to many of the allegations — including kissing the reporter's face and exchanging sexually suggestive emails with another woman — in sworn testimony to the Inspector General's Office.

In a June 25 statement, Tagliafierro encouraged other people with information regarding Freeman's conduct to reach out to her office.

"We are continuing to work closely with our law enforcement partners on this investigation and encourage anyone who may have additional information regarding this matter to contact our offices," she said.
Removed from Hall of Fame

Freeman's advocacy for open government earned him numerous awards from newspaper organizations and free-press advocates over the years.

On Thursday, the National Freedom of Information Coalition announced it was removing Freeman from its State Open Government Hall of Fame.

Freeman had been inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2010.

"It was the consensus of the 15-member board to remove Freeman because it was in his professional capacity as an open government and FOI public official that these behaviors took place, and his actions are inconsistent with the values of the organization," the coalition said in a statement.

The coalition's action Thursday followed a similar move by the New York News Publishers Association, which stripped Freeman of a similar award last month.

More: Robert Freeman, NY advocate of open government, fired over sexually inappropriate behavior

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