State Agency: ‘We Lost Our Federal Subpoena’

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Before coming to D.C., I wrote for a family-owned newspaper in New Mexico. There, I saw first-hand how closed government can impact a population. I still try to keep up with what’s happening back in New Mexico, and a recent story there caught my eye. The director of the State Investment Council resigned in October pending a federal investigation into a pay-to-play scandal. The scandal itself is intriguing, but I’m more interested in how the Investment Council lost a federal subpoena:

Problem is, the subpoena and questionnaire referred to in the letter weren’t included in the package of documents released to the media. Asked about that, spokesman Charles Wollmann said the SIC believes the documents are public records, but it can’t locate them.

“You have everything that we have. It’s not that we’re trying to hide anything,” he said.

More than likely, he’s telling the truth, and there’s nothing nefarious at foot. But what would happen to you if you lost a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission? It’s a curious disconnect between what we require of our government and what the government requires of us.

Sarah Welsh, the director of New Mexico’s Foundation for Open Government said, “in order for the public to access public records, agencies have to hang on to them.” There are pretty clear federal guidelines governing the preservation of records. The states have a system too, but that’s where the problem begins: the system is similar, but not uniform, across the states. That makes it difficult for an organization like ours to focus our efforts on state governments.

My colleague Nisha is on the front lines, so to speak, tracking down examples of local transparency stories, news and challenges with her weekly Local Sunlight series. Paul also has the issue on his radar, and over on OpenCongress we’re working to make it easier for users in one state to connect with their fellow residents.

In 2010, however, the Sunlight Foundation will be making more of a push into state government, a welcome move that I greet with enthusiasm. Simply put, the local issues do matter, and while we’ve always known that, I’m glad we’re able to step up and try to make a real difference there too.

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