May 21, 2013|By JON LENDER, EDMUND H. MAHONY and DAVE ALTIMARI, firstname.lastname@example.org, The Hartford Courant
The staffs of the state's top prosecutor and the governor's office have been working in secret with General Assembly leaders on legislation to withhold records related to the police investigation into the Dec. 14 Newtown elementary school massacre — including victims' photos, tapes of 911 calls, and possibly more.
The behind-the-scenes legislative effort came to light Tuesday when The Courant obtained a copy of an email by a top assistant to Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, Timothy J. Sugrue. Sugrue, an assistant state's attorney, discussed options considered so far, including blocking release of statements "made by a minor."
"There is complete agreement regarding photos etc., and audio tapes, although the act may allow the disclosure of audio transcripts," Sugrue wrote to Kane, two other Kane subordinates and to Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky, who is directing the investigation of the killings.
The bill that's being crafted has not been handled under routine legislative procedures — it hasn't gone through the committee process, which includes a public hearing, for example. Sugrue's email Tuesday indicated that a draft of the bill was being worked on by leaders in both the House and Senate, and might be ready as soon as the end of the day.
He wrote: "I just received a call from Natalie Wagner" — a member of the legal counsel's staff in the office of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
"She believes that draft language will be forthcoming today (the work of both houses) in the form of a special act. ..." Sugrue wrote that Wagner "will send me the draft in confidence when she receives it, and I will immediately forward it."
However, late Tuesday, the legislation proposed by Kane wasn't ready to be acted on in either legislative chamber, said Malloy's director of communications, Andrew Doba. He said he did not know when that might happen.
"A lot of people, including our office, have heard the concerns expressed by the families of Newtown victims, and are exploring ways to respect the families' right to privacy while also respecting the public's right to information," gubernatorial chief of staff Mark Ojakian said in a statement released by Doba.
A major question yet to be settled is whether the legislation would apply only to the Newtown case, or to documents from other criminal cases that are now subject to public disclosure. A report on the police investigation into the Newtown shooting is expected to be released in June.
As envisioned by Kane, the bill wouldn't be limited to the Newtown file.
"We are seeking legislation to protect crime scene photographs protecting victims and certain 911 tapes," Kane told The Courant Tuesday. "It is something that I have been concerned about for years and years and the situation in Newtown brings it to a head. I don't want family members seeing pictures of their loved ones publicized in a manner in which these are subject to be published."
He said as he sees the legislation, it would apply to "basically crime scene photographs depicting injuries to victims and recordings, 911 recordings displaying the mental anguish of victims. Things like that, of that category. And it seems to me that the intrusion of the privacy of the individuals outweighs any public interest in seeing these."
Sugrue said in his email that the "forthcoming" language would be "in the form of a special act, not an amendment to the [state's Freedom of Information Act]."
As originally discussed behind the scenes, the proposed legislation would have amended the state's freedom of information law by adding a blanket exemption to disclosure of any "criminal investigation photograph, film, videotape, other image or recording or report depicting or describing the victim or victims."
Colleen Murphy, the director of the state's FOI Commission, said Tuesday that her staff had argued against the idea of such a blanket change. She said a couple of weeks ago the office of House Speaker Brendan Sharkey provided her agency with a draft including the blanket exception. She said she was advised that this draft would not be put to a vote, but she knew nothing abut the contents of the "forthcoming" draft.
Murphy said she'd urged that lawmakers be "thoughtful and careful about any legislation" and to "not be reactive to one situation" by making changes that could have long-term, unintended effects.
Murphy was unaware of Sugrue's email when The Courant told her about it late Tuesday afternoon. She said she and her staff had not been receiving detailed updates. Asked if she would have liked to have been kept aware of developments such as Sugrue's email, she said yes.
The killing of 20 first-graders and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown has sparked a number of legislative proposals this year to protect the privacy of the victims' families and spare them further pain. One example is a bill that would exempt the death certificates of minors from public disclosure for six months.