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Forcing Officials to Pay For Cover-Ups — Or Not

Someone should pay for what Ohio State University did to alumnus Steve Snyder-Hill, who has said he was one of the victims of the late Dr. Richard Strauss many years ago. While serving as a physician for some OSU athletic teams, Strauss allegedly abused hundreds of male students sexually.

OSU officials have apologized and agreed to pay about $41 million to settle lawsuits filed by 162 of the men. Whether Snyder-Hill is to get any of that money, I don’t know — but someone should pay dearly for how the university treated him after he came forward as one of Strauss’ victims.

Someone — you, Mr. or Mrs. Ohio Taxpayer — will pay, but not dearly.

In 2018, Snyder-Hill asked OSU to provide him with records regarding his complaint against Strauss during the 1990s.

Eventually it did, but only after sitting on them for five months. That didn’t comply with state law requiring release of the information “within a reasonable period of time.”

Incredibly, OSU claimed one reason it delayed giving Snyder-Hill the information was that it might hurt an investigation into Strauss.

Now, an Ohio Court of Claims special master has ruled OSU violated state public records law by withholding the records for so long.

Good. Now for the bad news: OSU officials involved in the offense are getting off scot-free. The university must pay Snyder-Hills the $25 fee he paid to file a complaint over the delay, as well as other costs he incurred in doing so.

Chicken feed. But again, Ohio taxpayers, not the OSU officials at fault, will pay the tab.

That’s how it works in both Ohio and West Virginia, folks. There are strict, detailed laws about the public having a right to see most government records. What if you’re an official who gets caught withholding them?

In Ohio, if you hire an attorney and go to common pleas court, you can win as much as $1,000 in statutory damages from the government office that withheld records.

If you take the less costly route of going through the state Court of Claims, as Snyder-Hill did, you can win $25 plus other costs — but not attorney fees.

In both cases, taxpayers, not the guilty officials, pay the tab.

Here in West Virginia, stiffer punishment is available. A “custodian” of public records found to have violated the Freedom of Information Act can be sent to jail for 20 days and fined as much as $1,000. I’ve never heard of that happening.

Perhaps it should. In every public records violation case I’ve heard of, the individual official responsible pays nothing. The office — again, taxpayers — covers any penalty paid to a person denied access to records.

So if you’re an official trying to cover up mistakes or misbehavior, either individually or institutionally, you have nothing to lose by trying (unless, of course, you get caught breaking laws other than those on public records access).

The same goes for open meetings laws, by the way. Get caught breaking one and … you have to go back and approve whatever action you took illegally again, this time in an open session. Oh, the horror!

Open records and meeting laws are valuable. Without them, we’d have no recourse when government acts behind our backs or tries to cover things up. Trouble is, as matters stand, there’s very little to deter officials from trying to do that.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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