The Town of Hempstead has let two Freedom of Information requests from Newsday languish for four and six months, respectively, which public ethics advocates say seems to defy state law meant to ensure government transparency.
Newsday asked in July and September for records on current town vendor Dover Gourmet Corp. and former vendor Double Eagle Golf, including contracts, correspondence and memos. So far the town has provided only some of the Dover documents and, until Wednesday, none on Double Eagle.
“This appears to be a really blatant abuse of any discretion under the Freedom of Information Law,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause New York. “FOIL was not designed to allow a government entity to just play hide-the-ball indefinitely.”
State law calls on governments to at least acknowledge receiving such requests in five business days and to provide documents subject to disclosure 20 business days after that, if possible.
The town provided the first Double Eagle records Wednesday — after Newsday asked the town for comment on the outstanding requests. Hempstead spokesman Greg Blower said Supervisor Don Clavin directed town officials to provide the rest by Jan. 31.
Clavin was elected in November and took office earlier this month. Clavin and Blower said they had been unaware of the FOIL requests before Newsday's inquiry Tuesday.
“If you’re entitled to it, you should get the documents,” Clavin said.
Dover and Double Eagle have been the subject of recent political controversy, which raises questions about the cause of the slow response, said Alex Camarda, a senior policy adviser for the good government group Reinvent Albany.
“Where there are delays around a politically sensitive records request, it can create the appearance that the delay is due to politics,” he said.
In July, Newsday asked for records on Malibu Beach Park, a town-owned recreation facility in Lido Beach operated by Dover.
The administration of former Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen provided some records, including documents showing Dover had not paid the town rent on Malibu in nearly a year, accumulating a balance of $531,400. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York subpoenaed the town for records on Dover two days after Newsday reported on the unpaid rent.
But Marie Jerome, the town’s records access officer, then rejected the request, saying releasing the documents could interfere with the law enforcement investigation. Newsday appealed, and the town overturned its denial in August.
State law says an agency has 10 business days after an appeal to deny the request again or provide the records. The Gillen administration released some in October, but Jerome did not provide any more until November. That month, Deputy Town Attorney Albina Kataeva said the records the town needed to review for release were “voluminous,” but the town would provide the rest by Dec. 5.
That deadline passed without more disclosures. On Dec. 17, Jerome said she could not say when the town would provide the rest.
“Under the law, they always have to provide a date,” Camarda said.
Jerome did not respond to a request for comment. Kataeva declined to comment.
The town did fulfill an August request for records on capital improvements at Malibu. But Jerome said a September request for documents on Double Eagle, which ran Hempstead’s golf course in Lido Beach for 20 years, was “voluminous,” and the town would need more than six months to respond.
Town attorney Joe Ra told Newsday in October those documents would be provided “on a rolling basis.” The town did not provide any before Newsday's request for comment Tuesday. Ra did not respond to a request for comment.
Dover and Double Eagle bear similarities. Newsday has reported that both allegedly accumulated more than $500,000 in unpaid rental fees to Hempstead, argued the town owed them for capital improvement expenses and paid Joseph Cairo, now Nassau County Republican Committee chairman, for work related to the town properties. Hempstead is in litigation with both companies.
Gillen on Tuesday said “controversial” FOIL requests were delayed in the town attorney’s office during her tenure as supervisor.
“FOIL is supposed to be handled by the clerk's office,” she said. “But we had instances where the town attorney's office basically usurped that function from the clerk's office and is unnecessarily delaying responses.”
Camarda said there are legitimate reasons for such delays when agencies must field numerous or expansive requests.
But “even when it’s for legitimate reasons, it still undercuts the goal of government transparency,” he said.