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Too many secrets: Keeping you in the dark

February 28. 2012 11:37PM

New Hampshire's government is accountable to the citizens it serves. That is clearly stated in the state constitution; the right to know law reinforces the message.

Unfortunately, the Attorney General's office regularly shows disrespect for this key tenet of open government. Year after year, its lawyers find new ways to argue that the right to know is actually an Official Secrets Act. Look at their recent actions.

Last Friday, Nicole R. LeBlanc was arrested for first degree murder. She is charged with the January shooting of Richard Mannion in Sandown. The state's news release credited several law enforcement agencies but revealed nothing about the suspect except her age. No hometown, no photo, no details on her arrest or where she was being held.

When reporters asked for those basic details, Assistant Attorney General Peter Hinckley told them to go away. 'It's an open, active investigation even though we have a suspect in custody,' he explained, just in case someone thought an arrest ends a case. Hinckley said he could not say where LeBlanc lives or if she is related to Mannion. He told the Union Leader's correspondent to get the information from LeBlanc's attorney at her arraignment. In other words, Hinckley thinks defense attorneys are public information officers but state employees are not.

Prosecutors have a duty to withhold information that will impede an investigation if released. No one questions that principle. But that legitimate exception is misused. The state regularly treats routine information as top secret instead of keeping a worried public informed to the greatest degree possible. In this case, that shortsightedness was not merely a frustration to Sandown, which had been kept in the dark for weeks. It mistreated a lot of people named Nicole LeBlanc. That isn't an unusual name in New England.

(At her arraignment Monday, records showed that LeBlanc resides at 37 Olde Country Village, Londonderry; that she allegedly shot Mannion in the head with a pistol, and that she had previously been charged with assaulting him.)

How long might the Attorney General's office fight to keep public information secret? It could be as long as any legal action remains technically possible. That's what it told the New Hampshire Supreme Court this month, according to the Laconia Daily Sun. In a right to know case involving a Weirs Beach fire, the state's lawyer said that the plaintiff's 18-month wait for a fire marshal's report was not too long because the statute of limitations is six years. 'We're nowhere near the end,' he said. In other words, expect some information by 2016.

Earlier this month, New Hampshire Sunday News reporter Nancy West asked Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin to identify eight people whose deaths were under investigation. He refused and argued that public notification would make no difference in the probes. That answer was more revealing than intended. In its own right to know policy memo, the AG's office concedes that investigators' documents can be withheld only if 'such production would reasonably be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings.' By admitting that disclosure of those names would not matter, the prosecutor showed he is not abiding by his own office's standards. That's hypocritical.

If the governor, a professed supporter of open government, ever told the Department of Justice to show proper respect for the public's right to know, his request fell on deaf ears. We hope the next occupant of the corner office will demand a change.

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