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As Utah lawmakers argued why they needed the now-repealed HB477 to shield more records from public release, leaders repeatedly said their staffers had been swamped by records requests in 2010 and spent more than 400 hours filling them.

But an open-records request from The Salt Lake Tribune shows the Legislature can produce no records to substantiate that claim, and attorneys now say it was an estimate. Related records that do exist suggest that the estimate may have been high.

Also during debates, lawmakers worried aloud that the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) could force disclosure of their personal emails or texts.

However, the documents obtained by The Tribune show that whenever such records were requested recently, the Legislature denied them, saying they were not public under GRAMA (without changes sought by HB477).

Senate President Michael Waddoups, House Speaker Becky Lockhart and House Majority Whip Greg Hughes were among lawmakers who argued HB477 was needed, in part, because legislative staffers had been deluged by GRAMA requests and racked up 400 hours last year to fill them.

To check the claim, The Tribune asked for a list of all GRAMA requests filed between Jan. 1, 2010, and March 4 this year, and for records that showed how many hours staff spent to fill each of them.

Documents provided in response did not include any tallies for work on nine of the 10 GRAMA requests filed with the Legislature in 2010 —¬†and included no records showing how lawmakers came up with the 400-hour claim.

John Fellows, general counsel for the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, said he came up with that number as an estimate.

"I went around and talked to each independent attorney and added it up. It was in excess of 400 hours," he said. "So there was no public record of it" that could have been included in response to The Tribune's GRAMA request.

Documents show that four of the 10 GRAMA requests from last year either were denied or none of the requested records was found. Two requests appeared to be much more complicated than all the others — and a work tally for one of them was included.

The tally was for a request by the law firm Ballard Spahr for emails to any of the 75 House members that mentioned people and groups involved in controversial proposals on where to build a train stop in Draper.

The tally showed legislative staff had spent 61 hours on that request and valued the staff time spent at $2,100.

The remaining requests — other than requests that were rejected or in which staff found no documents — would have had to average more than 61 hours each for staffers to have spent more than 400 hours on requests in 2010. Most requests were simpler or more focused, such as seeking computerized lists of employees and salaries.

Of note, documents show legislative staffers indeed were inundated with GRAMA work after HB477 passed this year, when reporters filed numerous requests before its revisions could take hold. Logs show staffers spent 169 hours on GRAMA requests in 2011 through March 23. But only six of those hours came before HB477 initially passed.

About the lack of other tallies for 2010 requests, Tom Vaughn, associate general counsel for the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, wrote to The Tribune that "we do not ordinarily keep copies of records relating to records requests after the time for appeals has passed. Because some of the records can no longer be located, the records provided to you do not include all of the records you have requested."

In HB477 debates, many lawmakers argued that GRAMA could lead to disclosure of personal communications sent to them on government-owned phones or computers. But documents show that the Legislature repeatedly denied requests for similar records between 2009 and this year, saying they are not public under the existing GRAMA.

For example, the House denied a 2010 request from the Deseret News seeking all emails sent to Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, about immigration legislation he was proposing.

Among reasons the House denied the request was that GRAMA allows protection of "personal files of a state legislator, including personal correspondence to or from a member of the Legislature," except for correspondence that "gives notice of legislative action or policy." In short, the denial notice says such personal communications are not public records under GRAMA, and similar language was used in other denials.

Fellows, however, said what is considered personal still could be debated, and that is why clarifying changes to GRAMA have been sought.

Documents show legislators sometimes voluntarily released personal emails, but letters made clear that such disclosures "should not be construed to be a waiver of protected status for other records, nor should it be considered to be a pattern or practice that will be adopted for future requests."

GRAMA group plans meetings

The GRAMA Working Group, appointed by legislative leaders to examine problems and possible revisions in Utah's open-records law, plans to meet weekly for the next several weeks.

It is scheduled to meet in Room 210 in the Senate Building on Capitol Hill at 9 a.m. each Wednesday.

Online video and audio will be available, with connection information at senatesite.com.