In 1914, before he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson, Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light, the most effective policeman.” This belief in the importance of full and free access to government information has been a staple of progressive doctrine, policy and rhetoric ever since.
Unfortunately, when it reveals—or even suggests—less-than-kosher behavior by a liberal politician, it is quickly abandoned. Or, more often, subtly subverted. In the last two weeks we have seen three examples of this unapologetic hypocrisy.
First, in compliance with an open-records request, Mayor Rahm Emanuel released 3,000 pages of emails concerning his administration’s handling of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. Not only were the emails heavily redacted, they were dumped late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.
Not to be out-maneuvered, the State Department released 5,500 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails the very same afternoon. This deluge fell short of a federal court’s order to make public 82 percent of the former secretary of state’s private-server communications before the end of 2015. The State Department blamed the failure on “the large number of documents and the holiday schedule.”
The most cynical example of faux-transparency, however, may belong to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. New York’s last man standing—of three-men-in-a-room fame—vetoed two bills that would have strengthened the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The bills would have shortened the time state agencies have to respond to FOIL requests to two months from nine; and given citizens far more insight into how tax dollars are spent.
The bills had been sitting on the governor’s desk since June, but Mr. Cuomo waited until just before Christmas to veto them. In his veto message, the governor said he was killing the reforms because they didn’t go far enough: they covered all state agencies, but not the legislature.
There is absolutely no question that the Legislature’s documents should be subject to the same FOIL reforms. But their exclusion from these bills should not have been the basis for a gubernatorial veto. Mr. Cuomo’s excuse was reminiscent of another from an earlier era: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” And although Mr. Cuomo promises to introduce legislation to correct the omission, the Moreland Commission debacle makes us dubious about Mr. Cuomo’s sincerity and willingness to comply with his own pronouncements.
The vetoed bills’ legislative declaration is a worthy reminder of how government is supposed to serve the people:
The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality.
In the not-too-distant past, dumping bad news—or holding a Democratic candidate debate—on the eve of a major holiday would soon be forgotten. Today, the non-news is easily accessible forever; and politicians’ cynicism long remembered.