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State official offers a flimsy excuse for denying access to Buffalo Billion records

Here’s what the state’s freedom of information officer needs to understand about the denial of a records request by The Buffalo News: When someone uses a flimsy excuse to refuse to release demonstrably public information, it looks fishy.

That’s what happened when The News sought information relating to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program: Mongthu Zago rejected the formal request for phone logs, visitor logs, calendar entries and other notes that were created during the normal course of business. Zago claimed, unpersuasively, that the records fell into an exception allowing denial when logs are compiled by law enforcement and could interfere with a criminal investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

But one of New York’s leading authorities on sunshine laws, Robert Freeman, disputed her reasoning.

“Case law indicates that records prepared in the ordinary course of business generally do not fall within the exception involving records compiled for law enforcement purposes,” said Freeman, executive director of New York’s Committee on Open Government. “If records had been routinely disclosed in the past, the fact that they relate to an investigation should not alter rights of access.”

Indeed, a state judge recently made the same point in ruling against the Town of Oyster Bay, which had denied access to records requested by Newsday.

The News is appealing the rejection, but the writing seems to be on the wall here.

It’s not just that the information seems likely to be released at some point – either by Bharara or via a judge’s decision overruling Zago – although that is a clearly relevant point. More critically, the refusal to release routine information makes it appear as though there is something to hide.

We hope that’s not the case. The Buffalo Billion program has helped to put this city on its feet after decades of struggle and self-doubt. Cuomo has been the best friend Western New York has had in the governor’s office in a long time – possibly since DeWitt Clinton proposed the Erie Canal.

But the public has a right to know how decisions were made, who was involved and what connections relevant players might have to the administration. That’s what the requested information could help to sort out. The administration can release it now or do so when a judge orders it. Now would seem to be the better choice.

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