Hard drive possession may violate Open Records Act

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May 9, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga.---If Commissioner Marion Williams has access to the city administrator's computer hard drive, is he breaking the law by violating a privacy issue simply by having it in his possession?

One local attorney says it's possible.

The Georgia Open Records Act is a state law requiring that public records be open and available for inspection by any member of the public--but the act prohibits specific information from being available, and that's what's in question here.

"I got it from a professional," Williams told reporters Tuesday (May 8). "I had to go outside to do some things."

"It was not in compliance with the Open Records Act," said attorney David Hudson, counsel for the Georgia Press Association.

Hudson clarifies the law in the controversy surrounding Augusta city administrator Fred Russell's computer hard drive.

Commissioner Williams claims that he has copy of it but won't say how he obtained it. Hudson says the issue here is if he does have it, there is information that Williams has access to that he legally should not.

"A commissioner, as a citizen, they have a right under the Open Records Act, for any document that's on a computer," Hudson said. "But that's not the end of the story. The Open Records Act has any number of categories of information that are not publicly available."

According to the Act, medical information and personal information such as social security number, date of birth, mother's birth name, and personal financial data are all exempt. Also excluded are home addresses, telephone numbers, and work evaluations and letters of recommendation relating to public officers or employees of the city. That includes police officers, judges, and prosecutors.

All of those things could be on Russell's computer.

"And that means it's not to be disclosed to a commissioner or anybody else that didn't have a reason for it," Hudson said.

Here's another problem: there is a required three-day waiting period that Hudson says wasn't followed properly.

"This information was taken immediately from someone else's computer, and that is contrary to the three-day provision of the Open Records Act."

Hudson explains that the law was meant to protect confidential information from getting in the wrong hands...but if it does happen, there is a course of action.

"You could probably go to court and get an injunction against the disclosure of that information, because it would be in violation of the Open Records Act," he said. "If you got information such as medical information and disseminated it, that could justify a civil action for an invasion of privacy."

But here's the other side of the coin. If it's proven that Russell conducted personal business on his work computer, Hudson says that's not covered under the law.

"A government employee puts information on a computer about business activities he or she may be conducting, I would say they do that at their own risk, because there are no laws or provision for that to be kept confidential," he said.

The purpose of the law is not only to encourage public access to certain information, but to maintain the public's confidence in government by discouraging secrecy and closed records.

Records held by private persons for a state agency and records held away from the work site are all subject to the law.

A request to inspect or copy records may be made either orally or in writing.

Williams says he hasn't looked at the hard drive yet because he's waiting on a legal opinion.

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