Zurik: Delayed, ignored records requests question whether New Orleans RTA is violating transparency laws

Updated: Aug. 11, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The State of Louisiana’s public records laws are in place to provide transparency to public agencies. But one New Orleans-based agency may be skirting those laws by not responding to requests.

Skip Gallagher, an Algiers resident, wanted to know why the Algiers ferries, operated by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, were out of service for years and the cost to taxpayers, so he filed a public records request to the agency. Gallagher requested e-mails, invoices, all documents related to the public dollars spent on the new ferries.

“We just had two boats, purchased for $10 million, parked at a pier for two years, then returned to the builder because they couldn’t pass Coast Guard inspection. And as best as I can tell, we’ve spent north of $1.2 million in inspections and more inspections, and then repairs of those boats, just to put them in service,” Gallagher said.

Louisiana’s public records law is clear -- an agency must respond within three days to a request.

“I would send in a public records request and get no response at all, no acknowledgment that they received the request, just nothing,” Gallagher said.

Skip Gallagher, an Algiers resident, has been trying for years to get copies of public records...
Skip Gallagher, an Algiers resident, has been trying for years to get copies of public records from the Regional Transit Authority related to new ferries that were purchased by the agency.(Jon Turnipseed/WVUE-TV)

In 2020, Gallagher decided to sue the Regional Transit Authority. It is the second time Gallagher has sued the RTA in the past few years for failing to respond to his requests. This time, he has hired an attorney for his lawsuit, Dan Zimmerman, a former chief deputy attorney for the City of New Orleans.

Gallagher said he has spent more than $10,000 on his efforts to receive RTA public documents.

“It shouldn’t be that difficult,” he said. “And the law says you have to have a response in three days. You know, I’ve got some [records requests] now that are two years old, just in this suit.”

Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said what the RTA is doing is a “violation of their legal obligation.”

But Gallagher is not alone in his efforts to receive documents from the RTA. FOX 8 has also had problems receiving records from the transit agency.

We asked for four years worth of invoices for the RTA’s general counsel, Sundiata Haley, whose billing for reading e-mails was the focus of a FOX 8 Investigation in 2011. We filed our request for Haley’s invoices in February 2021, in April, the public agency sent us invoices for 2017 and 2018. Six months later, we still have not received the remaining invoices for 2019 and 2020. FOX 8 asked for updates on the request in April and twice in June. The RTA ignored FOX 8′s questions and never responded.

“I think the reason they’re not doing it is because they know that if you want it, you’re gonna have to go to court to fight them. And that will take time,” Friedman said. “They’re figuring most people who want these documents are not going to go to the effort of getting an attorney and paying for all of this expensive stuff, and they figure they’ll just freeze you out.”

The RTA has fulfilled some of our other requests, but not the request for the invoices. Skip Gallagher said he is still waiting -- nearly three years -- for a response on his request. Gallagher takes his case to civil court later this month, with his trial slated for late August.

“If I don’t do this, and if I didn’t do this, who’s going to do anything about it?” Gallagher said.

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