NYCLU Challenges Nassau County PD’s Refusal to Release Records on Dealings with TV Personality Bill O’Reilly

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January 9, 2012 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed court papers challenging the Nassau County Police Department’s refusal to disclose public records concerning allegations that the Department launched an internal affairs investigation at the behest of Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly of a detective whom the TV personality believed was romantically involved with his wife.

The NYCLU filed the papers on behalf of John Cook, a reporter for Gawker who is seeking the records while writing a story about O’Reilly’s attempts to pressure the NCPD to investigate the unnamed detective. The story raises serious questions about whether the NCPD used public resources for O’Reilly’s private, personal benefit.

“This type of secrecy is unacceptable and incompatible with open government,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the case. “The public has a right to know how government agencies use taxpayer dollars and that information cannot be shielded merely by labeling records a ‘personnel file.’ If the county will not release this information, we are confident the courts will require it to do so.”

In October, Cook, acting as his own attorney, filed an Article 78 petition in State Supreme Court of Nassau County challenging the NCPD’s blanket denial of his records request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In response, the Police Department filed a motion to dismiss the petition. The NYCLU now represents Cook in the matter and will appear in court on his behalf at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday before the Hon. Dana Winslow, Supreme Court, Nassau County, 100 Supreme Court Dr. in Mineola.

“If the Nassau County Police Department rents out its investigative services to run personal romantic errands for local celebrities, the people of Nassau County need to know that,” Cook said. “The Freedom of Information Law is the law, and it’s shocking to see a police department take such a cavalier approach to following the law. Law enforcement must take their obligations to the law and the people of New York seriously.”

Cook requested all records pertaining to the investigation of the detective and a subsequent investigation into leaks pertaining to the original inquiry. He also requested records call logs, schedules of meetings, correspondence, and other contacts between the O’Reilly’s and former NCPD Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey; and records of NCPD contacts with two residential addresses belonging to the O’Reilly’s.

The NCPD claims that these records are exempt “personnel records,” and that disclosure would violate FOIL’s privacy exemption.

The NYCLU’s filing maintains that these arguments are flawed. First, it maintains that even if the documents concerning the two investigations are personnel records, the NCPD is obliged under FOIL to disclose redacted records that omit the names and personal identifying information of individual police officers.

Second, the NYCLU argues that the NCPD provides no basis for concluding that the requested call logs, meeting schedules and correspondence contain information of a personal nature. Even if they did, the public’s strong interest in understanding Mulvey’s actions, particularly in light of public accusations of misconduct, outweighs any private interest in withholding the records.

The NYCLU also argues that as NCPD has failed to articulate any opposition to releasing records regarding police contact with O’Rielly’s residences, the court should order the Department to produce those records.

“The public has every right to know how the NCPD spends scarce law enforcement resources,” said Samantha Fredrickson, director of the NYCLU’s Nassau County Chapter. “The Police Department cannot withhold records simply to save itself from possible embarrassment.”