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New York's Freedom of Information Law gets a boost

ALBANY – People stymied in their attempts to dig out public information from government agencies in New York will now be eligible to have their attorney’s fees repaid if they win court cases over stalled Freedom of Information Law inquiries.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, under widespread pressure from newspaper editorials across the state and government watchdog groups, signed a bill Wednesday permitting the repayment of lawyer fees if they “substantially” win court cases launched to pry public records out of state agencies.

Cuomo, whose administration has been sharply criticized over how many state agencies handled FOIL responses, signed the measure with some reluctance, saying he continues “to harbor concerns about diminishing the court’s discretion in these (FOIL) cases.’’ Cuomo also said the state Legislature continues to be exempt from most FOIL provisions, a change he says needs to be “updated” next year.

The measure was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican, and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Westchester County Democrat.

Cuomo vetoed a similar measure in 2015, and OK'd it after lawmakers amended their effort to include the terminology that plaintiffs in FOIL cases must “substantially prevail” in the courts and that courts must find that the state agency involved had “no reasonable basis” for denying access to the records.

The bill’s backers said people denied public documents cannot often afford to take their cases to court. Whether that substantially changes for individuals — given that plaintiffs would still have to cover the attorney costs in advance of any possible court victory — is uncertain.

But groups that regularly use FOIL to obtain documents hailed the new law, saying it could press agencies to more fully cooperate with the spirit and letter of the statute.

The Empire Center, a watchdog group, called the new law “a huge win for government transparency in New York.’’

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