June 8, 2010 — The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging Erie County’s refusal to release information about the use of taxpayer money to thwart federal and state investigations into conditions at two county correctional facilities.
“The county’s decision to withhold this information violates core democratic principles of open government,” said NYCLU Western Regional Office Director John A. Curr III. “The public has the right to know about the fiscal consequences of county officials’ decision to block state and federal efforts to expose and correct inhumane conditions in the county’s correctional facilities.”
In recent years, the county has aggressively resisted investigations, and subsequent legal challenges, by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the New York State Commission of Correction regarding unconstitutional and inhumane conditions at the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. Some county residents – as well as elected officials – have questioned the wisdom and expense of this obstructionist approach.
On Oct. 8, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request seeking records related to the expenditure of taxpayer funds to defend against investigations and legal actions involving conditions at the two facilities. The county denied the request in January. In February, it denied the NYCLU’s administrative appeal.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division notified the county in 2007 that it was investigating suicides and allegations of excessive force at the Erie County Holding Center. In August 2008, county officials barred federal inspectors from touring the Holding Center or the Erie County Correctional Facility unless a county attorney accompanied them and participated in interviews with jail staff and inmates.
The Civil Rights Division issued a report in July that described inhumane and unsafe conditions at both facilities and concluded that the county had failed to protect inmates’ civil rights. In September, the Civil Rights Division filed a federal lawsuit after county officials continued to deny federal inspectors from the facilities independent access to the facilities.
Instead of agreeing to reform proposals to settle the lawsuit, the county has hired a private law firm to assist in its legal defense. According to press reports, the county is paying the law firm $425 per hour.
“County officials cannot keep this information secret,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, who is lead counsel on the case. “If the county is unwilling to meet its obligations under the Freedom of Information Law, then we are confident the courts will require them to do so.”
The county has been similarly combative toward the Commission of Correction, which oversees county jails. The commission sued Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard in September over conditions at the Holding Center, citing “myriad delinquencies” at the jail. A month later, the county barred state inspectors from interviewing the Holding Center’s staff without a county lawyer or video camera present. The inspectors were conducting a customary investigation following an inmate escape the previous day.
The NYCLU filed the lawsuit, an Article 78 petition, in State Supreme Court for Erie County. Erie County and County Attorney Cheryl Green are named as defendants.
NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn is working with Stoughton on the case.