In Bridgeport, waiting years for public records while officials break transparency laws

The city has fallen into a pattern of delaying and stonewalling requests for public records – routinely in violation of state law.
Mayor Joe Ganim speaks during a news conference in August 2022.
Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media

The families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Lee Rawls are still waiting on officials in Bridgeport to turn over public records surrounding the mysterious deaths of each young woman 14 months ago.

Bobby Simmons, a former city school board member and CPA, waited for over a year to get records that would show how much Bridgeport was paying certain retired city attorneys who he believed were still working for the city as contracted employees and collecting pensions.

The late Ethan Book, a Republican who ran for state representative in 2020, got the election canvassing details he was seeking two years after polls closed.

The list goes on of people waiting for public records from the city of Bridgeport.

Despite pledges from Mayor Joe Ganim to improve transparency, Connecticut’s most populous city has fallen into a pattern of delaying and stonewalling requests for public records — routinely in violation of state law, a Hearst Connecticut Media investigation found.

For years, even as the number of requests filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) surged, Ganim’s administration has devoted minimal resources — often just one or two staff members with other duties — to process them.

City leaders have inexplicably abandoned their own proposals to speed up the process while instituting questionable practices — including funneling requests through a centralized, understaffed office — that defy their own recommendations for improvement.

The repeated failures have sowed further distrust among residents of a city marred by corruption scandals, including a criminal kickback scheme that landed Ganim in prison in 2003 and prompted him to promise to make city government more open and accountable to the public when he returned to office in 2015.

State officials charged with overseeing the public records law have grown increasingly frustrated with Bridgeport.

“They’re continually — continually — not living up to the law,” Christopher Hankins, a commissioner of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), said during a meeting last August. “This is an ongoing pattern of conduct.”

The city faces a growing backlog of more than 2,000 pending records requests. Included among them are a series of requests from Hearst Connecticut Media, some filed as much as two years ago.

The state’s FOIA law gives residents the right to obtain copies of certain government records. Frequently used by journalists, lawyers and local activists, it’s an important tool to help hold public agencies accountable to taxpayers. For example, it can help residents get copies of police incident reports and body camera footage as well as records detailing government spending.

The FOIC, which monitors compliance with the state’s open records laws, has received hundreds of complaints against the city and ruled Bridgeport violated the law more times than any other city or town in Connecticut by a wide margin in recent years. Most violations involved records requested from the city’s police department.

Fed up with the city’s repeated failures, the FOIC took the rare step of fining Bridgeport last year — a bill footed by city taxpayers.

But that $750 penalty also exposed the FOIC’s limits to gain compliance from Bridgeport — and other local and state agencies that regularly flout the open records law. Cases against the city continue to come before the commission in the months following the fine.

The law caps fines at $1,000, an amount that hasn’t been updated since 1984. And the commission’s executive director, Colleen Murphy, said the law sets a high bar for when the FOIC can issue fines. So fines are seldom imposed. In the last decade, only six fines have been issued.

“I don't know how much of a role we can play in what they're doing, given what's on our plate,” said Murphy. The FOIC also struggles with a backlog and delays of its own.

“I don't think there's a whole lot that we can do,” added Murphy, who said she wants to see the cap on fines raised. “I think our commission is probably, after that particular case (with the $750 fine), is really kind of in maybe a wait-and-see mode just trying to see where Bridgeport goes from here. Because I think the message was sent, and we'll see down the road if it was received.”

FOIC executive director Colleen Murphy

FOIC executive director Colleen Murphy

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/Hearst Connecticut Media Group

Bridgeport officials, including Ganim, denied multiple requests for an interview for this story. They also withheld records requested for this story and did not answer numerous questions, including how many records requests have been pending for at least one year, how many requests the city completed last year and historic staffing levels of those processing records requests.

However, City Attorney Mark T. Anastasi in a lengthy statement said the city is working to improve response times and the process.

“The City of Bridgeport has always been, and remains, committed to complying with all its legal obligations pursuant to the CT Freedom of Information Act,” he wrote. “Facilitating the process through which members of the public can obtain routine records more quickly and directly from the relevant department remains a priority concern for the city.”

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim stops into Mark Anastasi's office while making the rounds at the Margaret E. Morton Government Center on his first day back in office in 2015.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim stops into Mark Anastasi's office while making the rounds at the Margaret E. Morton Government Center on his first day back in office in 2015.

Autumn Driscoll / Hearst Connecticut Media

‘Excuses’ for the delays

State law requires public agencies to provide public records “promptly upon request.”

But Bridgeport has developed a reputation for taking months, if not years, to process even simple requests.

For example, in February 2021, several months into Rebeca Garcia's tenure as the city’s acting police chief, the Connecticut Post requested a copy of her resume. That request has languished since and remains unfulfilled. Garcia, meanwhile, retired in November.

City officials told the commission the backlog of open requests grew from 1,800 in December 2021 to over 2,000 in November 2022.

The city has told the commission one factor behind its growing backlog is beyond its control: An increase in incoming records requests, which officials said jumped from 544 in 2017 to 1,379 in 2021 and 1,916 in 2022. Bridgeport said the uptick in requests is tied to the Ganim administration’s launch of an online portal for submitting information requests in 2017.

“Ironically, introduction of this user-friendly public portal, established to streamline the processing of requests and standardize responses to requests, has had the unintended consequence of creating an ever increasing volume of FOI requests, with commensurate increases in service demands initiated thereby,” Anastasi said in a statement.

Bridgeport officials have also, for years, repeatedly described being understaffed. Yet it appears little has been done to address the issue, even as demand for records rose sharply.

At a December 2021 commission hearing, Margo Litz, assistant to the city attorney, testified that Bridgeport had “lost some support staff that were tasked with supporting FOI business.”

“So basically, we have one staff member responsible for managing and supervising the (online) portal, which has thousands of requests,” Litz said.

At the time, Litz said one of her many responsibilities was to compile responsive documents for information requests and send them to that lone full-time city employee she mentioned — attorney Dina Scalo — for review.

Litz and other staff in the city attorney’s office continue to provide “backup assistance” for records requests “as warranted,” the city said. The city said it also recently hired a new paralegal to help. Bridgeport also has assigned at least one employee in each department to, among other responsibilities, search for requested records and send those documents back to the attorney’s office for review.

For at least a year and a half, Scalo was responsible for handling all FOIA requests, but she has also been responsible for appearing before the FOIC for all complaints made against the city, appealing commission decisions in court and testifying at the state Capitol on legislation that would change open records laws and impact the city.

Last year, Bridgeport defended itself against complaints about its FOIA response at several dozen different gatherings: 43 FOIC hearings; 27 cases discussed at another 12 commission meetings; and two cases that were escalated to state court.

“This requires city staff to travel in between 2-3 hours round trip to attend each FOI hearing, meeting, or other required engagement,” Anastasi’s statement said.

Scalo also works on other non-FOIA matters for the city. The city said that while records requests take up the “vast majority” of her time, she does not handle FOIA matters exclusively.

Scalo, speaking to the commission last May about a request that had been outstanding for two-and-a-half years, said she was trying to “triage” a number of different requests.

“I did my best to produce as much as I could as quickly as I could, while still attending to my other duties,” Scalo said. “It’s really all on my shoulders.”

Michael Jankovsky, another attorney in the city’s legal office, testified at the same hearing that Scalo was “overburdened.” 

“Unfortunately, she’s the only person handling it right now,” Jankovsky said.

The exterior of Bridgeport City Hall in Bridgeport.

The exterior of Bridgeport City Hall in Bridgeport.

Ned Gerard, Staff photographer / Hearst Connecticut Media

A bottleneck of requests

Directives from top officials in Ganim’s administration have also slowed the processing of FOIA requests.

For example, a Jan. 31 email from the city’s director of emergency management rerouted a records request from Bridgeport Councilwoman Maria Pereira to the city attorney’s office “as directed by the City Attorney’s and City police for all departments when FOI documents, recordings or videos are requested.”

Maria Pereira addresses Mayor Joe Ganim during a Board of Education meeting at City Hall in 2016.

Maria Pereira addresses Mayor Joe Ganim during a Board of Education meeting at City Hall in 2016.

Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media

And in January 2022, Scalo said in an affidavit to the FOIC that part of her job is to “conduct legal review of the majority of records produced in response to Freedom of Information Requests.”

Both situations seemed to defy a 2016 recommendation from the task force Ganim set up when he returned to office to direct him on how to improve government transparency and accountability. To open government to outside eyes, the report recommended only 10 percent of FOIA requests be referred to the city attorney.

City officials declined to answer whether city departments have been ordered to funnel all requests through the city attorney and they did not provide policies city staff must follow when handling FOIA requests.

Anastasi’s statement said the prior administration implemented a requirement that the city attorney’s office review records prior to disclosure, with the exception of certain “routinely available” documents.

He also said — without providing specific examples — that “years ago, the city experienced various instances wherein certain of its departments inappropriately released confidential records (including personnel and competitive purchasing records) in response to FOI requests.” 

City Councilman Scott Burns, who co-chairs the budget committee, said funneling all records requests to the city attorney's office "doesn't make a lot of sense."

“We are hearing about relatively simple requests that could be fulfilled and responded to — and yet are not. So why? That’s our question,” he said.

Bridgeport City Council member Scott Burns in 2019.

Bridgeport City Council member Scott Burns in 2019.

Christian Abraham/Hearst Connecticut Media

The ability for such a policy to gum up the process was made apparent in Simmons’ case.

An affidavit submitted to the FOIC in his case said the documents Simmons requested were quickly pulled by the department he was seeking the information from and sent to the city attorney’s office.

Then the records sat there for 11 months awaiting legal review by Scalo.

It wasn’t until the eve of Bridgeport’s hearing before the FOIC that the city released 36 pages of records. Still, other requested records were left out and remained unfulfilled as of late January, including contracts between Bridgeport and Anastasi.

“To be simply ignored for over a year is just outright insulting,” Simmons said during a hearing about his case.

The hearing officer recently concluded the city broke the state’s open records law in this case, and is recommending the commission mandate the city again undergo training on the state’s open records law. The FOIC is expected to vote Feb. 22 on the case.

Bobby Simmons speaks during a Bridgeport Board of Education meeting in 2012.

Bobby Simmons speaks during a Bridgeport Board of Education meeting in 2012.

Ned Gerard

In response to questions from Hearst about staffing levels, a spokeswoman for the city emailed that a full-time paralegal was hired in October to “continue to improve response time and to reduce the substantial backlog of pending FOIA requests.” The paralegal is “primarily dedicated to FOIA matters.”

Bringing on that paralegal took 14 months from when the idea was first proposed by R. Christopher Meyer, the city attorney from 2016 to mid-2022.

Meyer said Ganim was supportive and blamed the hiring delay on the City Council for stalling to approve funding for the position, while Burns said he wasn't convinced the mayor's office needed the council’s approval to make the hire.

In a recent interview, Meyer said beyond addressing understaffing in the legal office, Bridgeport needs to stop requiring all record requests to go through the city attorney’s office and train department heads on the many records they could review and release on their own.

“I’ve always thought the best solution was to push on departments to put out what they can that they know is legitimate and legal. Or, if they have to learn it a few times, once they’ve learned it, they should know that. And for the City Attorney’s office to have an extra set of hands," Meyer said. 

Former Bridgeport City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer in 2016.

Former Bridgeport City Attorney R. Christopher Meyer in 2016.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Anastasi wrote the city is working to decentralize the process so requests don’t need to go through his office.

“The City Attorney’s Office has developed over the past six months a plan to conduct further targeted training of appropriate departmental personnel … to respond directly to the vast majority of FOI requests, without the requirement of prior legal review of requested records by the Office of the City Attorney so as to reduce and/or eliminate any bottleneck/middleman delay.”

A copy of the plan was not provided. When a reporter asked a Ganim spokeswoman for the records, she routed the request through the city’s FOIA portal for Anastasi’s office to handle.

FOIC fed up

For FOIC officials, excuses about the influx of requests and being understaffed are getting old.

“Saying that you don’t have the resources can’t be the end-all. The person at the top has to figure out, ‘Oh, this isn't working. We've got to put something more into this.’ They can't just keep coming back and saying, ‘We have no staff to do this,’” said Murphy from the FOIC.

“Like it or not, complying with open government requests is one of your responsibilities,” Murphy added. “You can't just kind of put it on the back burner.”

Connecticut courts have ruled that complying with open record laws is a primary duty of each agency.

“The agency’s FOIA duty is not a second class duty … to any other statutory duty or command,” Judge John Cordani wrote in a July 2020 decision against state police. Agencies “have multiple statutory duties and finite resources, and some statutory duties may be more urgent than others. Obviously, maintaining public safety and order are generally more urgent duties.”

Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) members meet on Feb. 8, 2023. From left to right, executive director Colleen Murphy, Matthew Streeter, chair Owen Eagan, Christopher Hankins and Stephen Fuzesi Jr.

Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) members meet on Feb. 8, 2023. From left to right, executive director Colleen Murphy, Matthew Streeter, chair Owen Eagan, Christopher Hankins and Stephen Fuzesi Jr.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/Hearst Connecticut Media Group

The decision continued that it is an agency’s obligation to balance providing prompt access to open records and urgent needs facing the agency.

“FOIA’s statutory promptness standard means quickly and without undue delay, taking into account all of the factors presented by a particular request.”

But open records laws are too often treated as second class laws, said Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut.

“We would not expect to allow a public agency to behave this way with any other law,” Barrett said. “If Bridgeport was dumping toxic waste or failing to pay minimum wage, it would never be acceptable, but for some reason (failing to comply with FOIA) seems to be par for the course.”

Ganim's broken promises

Joe Ganim celebrates after winning the election as Bridgeport's new mayor at Testo's Restaurant in Bridgeport in November 2015.

Joe Ganim celebrates after winning the election as Bridgeport's new mayor at Testo's Restaurant in Bridgeport in November 2015.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

Ganim first became mayor in 1991. He remained in office until 2003, when he was convicted of running a pay-to-play operation out of City Hall.

His administration struggled with transparency failures back then.

In July 2001, after learning Ganim was the target of an FBI corruption probe, Connecticut Post reporters FOIA-ed for copies of bills for the mayor’s city-issued cellphone. But, the city initially refused and denied Ganim had a cellphone. Then, it provided heavily redacted copies.

It took nearly two years and multiple orders from the FOIC, including two $1,000 fines, before the city turned over all of the records, many of which were released only after Ganim resigned.

The records showed Ganim regularly used the taxpayer-funded phone for personal use, including to call co-conspirators involved in the criminal kickback scheme.

The then-FOIC head chastised the city attorney at the time, Mark Anastasi, and three other top city officials for “a history of delay.”

Anastasi retired as city attorney in 2018 transitioning to a part-time outside counsel role for the city. In June 2022, after Meyer stepped down as city attorney, Ganim reinstalled Anastasi to the job, which he still holds part-time.

In Ganim’s quest to win back the trust of constituents — both during the 2015 mayoral contest and after being sworn in — he promised policies to make local government more transparent and accountable.

To help show he was serious about improving in those areas, Ganim even brought onto his campaign Edward Adams — a former FBI agent who helped convict Ganim, retired from the bureau in 2003 and became an investigations and security consultant. 

Adams co-chaired an “open government” transition task force subcommittee following Ganim’s election. The task force concluded the FOIA process in Bridgeport, as overseen by the City Attorney’s office, was “extremely difficult and, at times, impossible,” according to a transition report released in February 2016 that was to serve as a framework for the returned mayor and his aides.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim on his first day in office in 2015. Retired FBI Agent Edward Adams has been working for Ganim, the man he helped convict in 2003 of running a pay-to-play operation out of City Hall.
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim on his first day in office in 2015. Retired FBI Agent Edward Adams has been working for Ganim, the man he helped convict in 2003 of running a pay-to-play operation out of City Hall.Autumn Driscoll / Hearst Connecticut Media file

The transition team recommended establishing three different categories of records to expedite requests and setting up an “office of public integrity and accountability” to help manage the FOIA responses, reducing the implied overreliance on the municipal law department. 

The first tier of records would include “any and all non-sensitive information” — an estimated 70 percent of requests at the time — that could be “made immediately available without an FOI request.”

The second tier would require a written FOIA submission “because the request may contain information exempt from public inspection,” covering approximately 20 percent of information requests.

The third tier would see about 10 percent of all requests forwarded to the municipal law department for review. The report did not provide more specifics on which types of documents should fall under each tier.

Whether or not the tiers were ever seriously pursued is unclear. A year after the transition report’s publication, the Ganim administration launched its online portal for submitting information requests, and it has continued to rely on the tradition of steering those through the law department.

Meanwhile, although Adams remains employed with the administration and has been assigned various responsibilities over the years, the formal office of public integrity, which Ganim had intended Adams to helm, was never created. 

Ganim submitted an ordinance establishing that office to the City Council in March 2016. But it was criticized as being ineffectual because the person whose job it would be to run the operation would be “appointed by the mayor and shall serve at the pleasure of the mayor” — they would lack true independence.

In an interview at the time, Carol Carson, then-head of Connecticut’s office of state ethics, said, “If the mayor holds the key to my paycheck, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for me to investigate matters involving the mayor. That’s just human nature.”

Elsewhere, a different story

Bridgeport and Hartford have roughly comparable populations. They’re both subject to the same state public records laws, and they both use the same online third-party platform to receive, track and fulfill records requests.

They’ve both been the subjects of a fairly similar number of FOIC complaints, with a slight edge to Hartford. But Bridgeport has had far more rulings against it.

From 2012 through 2021, 265 FOIC complaints were lodged against Hartford and 253 against Bridgeport, according to data provided by the commission.

In most cases, the cities eventually turned over the records before the FOIC reached a final ruling — a process that can take months, sometimes stretching past a year.

But among cases that reached the final stage before the FOIC, the commission found Bridgeport violated the state’s public records law 28 times, while ruling against Hartford 11 times.

Bridgeport accounts for just 4 percent of Connecticut residents but 17 percent of all public records violation rulings against municipalities by the FOIC.

About two-thirds of the rulings against Bridgeport involved records sought from the city’s police department. Statewide, a similar share of FOIC violation rulings against municipalities involved police records.

“When the police decide to rob the public of the right to know what the police are up to, that takes away the public’s ability to participate in democracy,” said Barrett. “You can’t go to local council meetings, your representative or senator’s office and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve learned about the Bridgeport Police Department’ if you never have the records in the first place.”

To better understand the volume and complexity of requests large cities receive, how they handle requests and what resources they dedicate to processing them, Hearst Connecticut Media filed FOIA requests and asked questions of Bridgeport and the next four largest cities — New Haven, Stamford, Hartford and Waterbury.

Responses to those inquiries revealed Bridgeport’s backlog of pending FOIA requests was much larger than some other cities.

For example, Hartford said it had about 40 open requests as of late January and received between about 750 and 900 requests per year between 2017 and 2019; the city did not say how many requests it received in more recent years.

Waterbury provided records showing about 715 pending requests as of mid-January, even though that city received over 10,000 FOIA requests in 2021. It took Waterbury, on average, 18 days to complete requests.

New Haven did not provide complete figures about all requests citywide, but records from the city show its police department alone had about 260 pending requests as of the end of January and fielded about 10,200 requests during 2021.

Bridgeport, meanwhile, had over 1,800 pending requests in 2021 and received less than 1,400 requests that same year.

Stamford officials did not say how many pending requests the city has.

Some cities also described dedicating far more resources to processing requests than Bridgeport.

Hartford said its police department has two sergeants whose sole duties are to handle civil litigation and FOIA requests. Every other city department has a staff member who serves as a point of contact for FOIA requests alongside their other duties.

Waterbury said every department has staff who handle FOIA requests alongside their other duties. Overall, 116 city employees are registered to use the city’s FOIA request intake and processing system. There is also one full-time staff attorney and one full-time legal secretary dedicated to FOIA requests in the city attorney’s office.

New Haven’s written FOIA guidelines call for each city department to have a staff member respond to requests in addition to their other duties; each department also has another staff member who is considered a backup FOIA liaison. Several staff members in the city attorney’s office also handle FOIA-related matters as needed, the city said.

Stamford officials said the city does not have any special funding or staff dedicated to processing FOIA requests full time, but “employees in each department perform FOIA work for their respective department if requested.”

Officials from other municipalities have taken notice of Bridgeport regularly being scolded by members of the FOIC.

A New London attorney in November, while explaining an issue the city had remedied, told the commission: “Maybe it’s just my attempt not to become Bridgeport, but we’ve been here before and we understand how the procedures work.”

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