Secrecy defeated in plea deal

Last week the people of Arkansas were given a small sign that government can work. Of course, this sign involved a little push from the criminal justice system, but things did eventually go as they should. As reported by, Marilyn Heifner, the director of the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission, has entered a no contest plea to a misdemeanor charge alleging she violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Under the terms of the deal, Heifner will receive a sentence of $220 in fines and court costs, plus a 30-day suspended sentence. A district judge still has to approve the plea.

The charge was lodged after the Northwest Arkansas Times filed a complaint against Heifner on Feb. 9, because she refused to produce a document regarding the lease of Fayetteville’s Old Post Office building, which is now used as a location for private businesses.

This plea should serve as a strong warning to government officials all over the state. As regular readers know, the Commercial has waged its own pitched battles with local officials jealously guarding the secrets of its own internal process. With the exception of open criminal investigations and some personnel records, the business of the city is by definition, the people’s business. If conducted for a public purpose, the citizenry should have access to all the fine grain details of it. For government (and its constituent officials) to comport themselves otherwise is anathema to the foundational principles of our democracy.

At least once a year, often during the so-called “Sunshine Week” commemorating the Freedom of Information Act, the Commercial reminds readers of their right to know the inner workings of their government. This year was no exception, nor should it be. As we indicated during our annual acknowledgement (just last week), we in Arkansas have one of the strongest sunshine laws in the nation. We are exceptionally fortunate in that regard.

Even so, public officials occasionally demonstrate the necessity of legal compulsion. Just as Heifner discovered in Fayetteville, the people’s right to know trumps all personal and political agendas. For some in politics, this is a hard lesson. It is why we have the information laws that we do.

It’s not that we don’t understand the temptation. It’s just that the mantle of power and the cloak of secrecy aren’t the same garment. As some public-minded officials have begun to recognize, the letter makes for quite expensive haberdashery. As Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., observed in a 2010 speech before the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, France, secrecy and the financial motivation to preserve it combine to choke the global economy. “The World Bank estimates that more than one trillion dollars in bribes are paid each year out of a world economy of 30 trillion dollars. That’s a staggering 3 percent of the world’s economy. And the impact is particularly severe on foreign investment. In fact, the World Bank estimates that corruption serves, essentially, as a 20 percent tax. Put simply, corruption undermines the promise of democracy. It imperils development, stability, and faith in our markets. And it weakens the rule of law.”

Even without this kind of direct “secrecy tax” in the form of bribes, the public still feels the impact. Democracy only works when done in the bright light of open debate. When any other motive intrudes, we all suffer.