I-TEAM: How we spent a year pushing the attorney general’s office for records used in our investigation

3:33 p.m Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 Local News

Editors’s note: A months-long I-Team investigation of Ohio’s Crime Victim Compensation Program found the amount of assistance paid through the program has been steadily declining for a decade. Last year the program denied more people than it approved, and now spends almost as much on staff salaries and overhead as it gives in aid. Victims and victims’ advocates say some of the rules are too stringent for a program funded by criminals to help make repair damages done by crimes. Read the full story here.  

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The I-Team’s recent investigation of Ohio’s Victims Compensation Program, and rules that prevent many applicants from getting assistance, followed a nearly year-long effort to get public records about the program from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

This is noteworthy because Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office is the state authority on Ohio public records laws. Staff there produce the annual Ohio Sunshine Manual and arbitrate claims that local governments aren’t adhering to the state law. 

The I-Team first took note of the victims compensation program in mid-2016, when reporting on the murder of eight people in Pike County. Family members of those killed were having a hard time getting money to bury their loved ones from the fund, because of evidence the family was dealing drugs. 

This led our reporters to wonder: what sort of reasons typically disqualify victims from being able to access the fund? How do these rules impact aid for victims of crime? 

We obtained a copy of the victims compensation fund annual report, which listed a number of rules and showed that payments from the program have been steadily declining for years. 

Reporters verbally requested information on declined applications; but the AG’s office said they couldn’t provide the information. Reporters then submitted a written request for two months of applications for four area counties. 

“Unfortunately, we cannot process this revised request either. We do not organize and access “applications for the victims compensation fund” by the criteria you provided. Applications are organized and accessed by applicant name. State ex rel. Zidonis v. Columbus State Community College, 133 Ohio St.3d 122, 2012-Ohio-4228  

“The database used to organize applications, as currently programmed, is designed to allow staff to access records by applicant name. As previously stated, the database as currently programmed is not designed for front-end users to produce reports based on the criteria you provided. Your request as submitted cannot be processed without extraordinary measures or improper research. State ex rel. Carr v. London Corr. Inst., 144 Ohio St.3d 211, 2015-Ohio-2363.  

“We are able to process records requests where the requester is searching for applications from specific applicants. If you have a request of this nature, we will be pleased to work with you to acquire responsive records.”

The catch-22 here, of course, is that the AG’s office wouldn’t provide the list of names, either. But without the names, they say they can’t provide the records. 

“You refer to a “database used to organize applications.” I would like a copy of that entire database, in electronic format. I would like it in Excel or CSV format along with a data dictionary or other documentation used to interpret the data or column headings.”

“A public office does not have to provide output from a database if the public office would have to reprogram its computer system to respond to a public records request for that output. See State ex rel. Kerner v. State Teachers Retirement Bd., 82 Ohio St.3d 273, 274, 1998-Ohio-242, 695 N.E.2d 256; State ex rel. Gambill v. Opperman, 135 Ohio St.3d 298, 2013-Ohio-761, 986 N.E.2d 931. Moreover, while a requester may choose how they would like to receive copies of public records, the requested medium must be reasonable as “an integral part of the normal operations of the public office[.]” R.C. 149.43(B)(6).  

“We are able to process records requests where the requester is searching for applications from specific applicants. If you have a request of this nature, we will be pleased to work with you to acquire responsive records.”

In January, the I-Team produced a follow-up story about some Rhoden family members being denied victims compensation because of the program rules. At this time, reporters tried requesting just a certain time period of claims. 

“I am requesting all Findings of Fact and decision and correlating applications for victims compensation fund for this calendar year, YTD”

“Pursuant to Ohio public records laws, I am requesting records that, individually and collectively, illustrate:  

1. What program, software or interface the Ohio Attorney General’s Office uses to organize applications and denials for victims compensation funds. 

2. Any user manuals for that database. 

3. Any training materials, or materials from presentations, provided to staff on how to use that database.”

Nearly three months later, the 264-page user manual was provided.

“After reviewing the user manual for your victims compensation unit, I am making the following request pursuant to Ohio public record law. I am requesting:  

1. Monthly reconsideration reports produced by your reconsideration unit (per page 35 of the manual) for every month through and including January 2016 and May 2017. 

2. Monthly summary reports produced by your reconsideration unit (per page 35 of the manual) for every month through and including January 2016 and May 2017. 

3. A list of all claims connected to Montgomery County from Jan. 1, 2016 through May 31, 2017. Page 211 of the manual explains how your office can query by county and date (selecting all incident types) and produce such a list. I would prefer the record in a CSV format. If that is not possible, I would like it in a pdf printed from the program. If that is not possible, I would like a digitized printout.”

  It took a month for the AG’s office to provide the spreadsheet, but they did. After reviewing those, reporters asked for copies of the applications that indicated the request had been denied but the applicant appealed. 

The I-Team obtained the records in August. And after conducting interviews with victims, advocates and state officials, we produced our report a year after the initial request for records was denied.

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