In the wake of the Utah Legislature's failed attempt to gut the state's public records access law the Government Records Access Management Act, or GRAMA the news media often have been under attack from politicians, legislators and government bureaucrats.
But the taxpayer-funded Utah Transit Authority may have struck a new low, or a new high, depending on your point of view. The agency filed a brief with the State Records Committee that claimed The Salt Lake Tribune committed a criminal act for, well, doing its job.
When I pressed UTA for an explanation Friday, general counsel Bruce Jones said there was a misunderstanding and UTA is not alleging criminal activity.
The Tribune and UTA are in a battle before the State Records Committee over the newspaper's attempt to obtain crime statistics under GRAMA.
The brief, filed by UTA's senior counsel Jennifer Rigby Kohler, claims The Tribune violated Utah Code 76-8-104, which says a person is guilty of a class A misdemeanor "if he threatens any harm to a public servant, party official, or voter with a purpose of influencing his action, decision, opinion, recommendation, nomination, vote or other exercise of discretion."
UTA asks for sanctions against The Tribune even though media attorneys say the State Records Committee, which settles disputes over whether records are public or private, has no authority to issue sanctions.
UTA's claim of criminal conduct is based on a story Tribune reporters Lee Davidson and Janelle Stecklein wrote Sept. 18 that said UTA refused to discuss crime statistics to back up its claim that criminal activity at UTA facilities was part of the reasons it was considering eliminating the free-fare zone in downtown Salt Lake City.
The Tribune's request for the statistics was for an ongoing series about crime trends in the Salt Lake Valley. Fifteen other law enforcement agencies provided the data.
The motion suggested that Davidson threatened UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter with a negative story if Carpenter didn't release the information.
But Davidson, in his interview with Carpenter, simply said, "Well, you obviously can see where this story is going to go … that you guys have the data but you're not giving it to us or the public." Carpenter responded, "Sure, sure and I understood that before I called you."
The two then had a friendly chat about whether Davidson was attending a public meeting the next day.
"This motion is B.S.," said media law attorney and University of Utah professor Randy Dryer.
"It is far-fetched to think a newspaper asking for records or saying they're going to do a story about a refusal to turn over records is a violation of this criminal statute, which relates to corrupt practices," said Dryer. "It's a feckless threat."
Now, Jones says UTA is not suggesting Davidson or The Tribune acted criminally. The wording in the motion, he said, was an emotional reaction on the part of UTA. While he can understand how that wording would be interpreted, it is not suggesting criminal intent.
As for the request for sanctions, Jones said that was the wrong word. Instead of "sanctions," it should have said "caution" because UTA felt the dispute between The Tribune and UTA had become too aggressive.
"We have a lot of respect for Lee Davidson and we believe he has treated us appropriately [in his coverage of the UTA]," Jones said.