Lawyers file motion to dismiss paper’s FOIA complaint

The law firm representing Darien Schools has filed a motion to dismiss a complaint by The Darien Times that claims the school district is illegally withholding information from the public.

Shipman & Goodwin, a firm that represents roughly 80% of the school districts in Connecticut including Darien, seeks to withhold the work of McDowell Jewett Communications, a public relations firm that has been paid over $50,000 by Darien taxpayers. The newspaper claims McDowell’s work should be made public, but Shipman argues the public relations work is protected under lawyer-client privilege.

The motion, signed by Shipman attorney Jessica Soufer, states that McDowell was hired by Shipman “for the sole purpose of facilitating the provision of legal advice” to the school district’s lawyers. It further states that at “no time did the Darien Board of Education independently retain [McDowell] and at no time did [the school board or administration] communicate independently with” McDowell or any of its employees.

However, The Darien Times claims it has evidence showing that there was direct communication between a top school administrator and McDowell, and that the Freedom of Information Commission should determine whether McDowell’s work is exempt from disclosure or not.

Clifton Leonhardt, the hearing officer in The Times’ complaint, stated the he will rule on Shipman’s dismissal motion at the hearing, which is slated for Monday, June 30, in Hartford.

Leonhardt noted that he needs to “determine whether [the] requested records are inextricably linked to the giving of legal advice.”

Thomas Nash, the group publisher of The Times’ parent company, Hersam Acorn Newspapers, expressed doubt that McDowell’s work solely involved providing the school district legal advice when the law firm could communicate that advice itself.

“The Darien Times has taken the extraordinary measure of appealing to the state Freedom of Information Commission because something doesn’t feel right and we want to get to the bottom of what’s been happening,” Nash said.

Communication problems recurred throughout last year’s special education crisis, even as McDowell took home more than $5,000 a month to help the district and its lawyers find a path through the morass. During arbitration hearings with the school administrators’ union, the arbitrators pointed out the public relations problem caused by the special education crisis, and how some public officials lamented that they were approached often, even “in the grocery store,” about the special education problems.

The Times recently filed another complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission against the state Department of Education. The newspaper filed at least six Freedom of Information requests between May and July of 2013 that have not been fulfilled. Numerous attempts over the last year to receive updates on the status of these requests were not answered. The requests are related to the state’s investigation into Darien Schools last year and communication between the state and former Darien administrators, and other information.

Originally published in The Darien Times.


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