State officials must release the names of scores of people who have received substantial payments from the state to settle lawsuits, employment disputes, or other issues in recent years, under a Suffolk Superior Court decision Monday in a lawsuit filed by The Boston Globe.
Massachusetts officials had sought to keep confidential the names of people who receive the payments, which can range from small amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars, arguing that recipients have a right to privacy.
But Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Connors rejected the argument, saying the public has a right to know with whom the state settles legal or other claims and at what cost. He ordered a handful of state agencies to disclose the names of 89 individuals who received settlements of $10,000 or more between January 2005 and March 2010.
“Our public records law manifests a wholly parallel and equally compelling specific interest on the part of the Commonwealth’s citizens to be able to monitor and to evaluate the affairs of their government,” wrote Connors.
A spokeswoman for Governor Deval L. Patrick said attorneys for the administration have not had time to review the decision and could not comment on whether the state would appeal.
“As of late this afternoon we have not received a ruling from the court,” said Jesse Mermell, Patrick’s communications director.
But Globe editor Brian McGrory praised Connors’s ruling.
“Judge Connors has affirmed the fundamental right of Massachusetts citizens to know how their tax money is being spent and who is receiving it,” said McGrory. “It’s unfortunate that we had to file a lawsuit to protect something so basic, but we couldn’t be more pleased with the decision.”
The dispute between the Globe and the state began in 2010 when Globe reporter Todd Wallack requested settlements and severance agreements worth more than $10,000 from most of the largest state agencies, including all the executive offices under the Patrick administration as well as the Massachusetts Port Authority.
The agencies produced the documents but the Patrick administration and some other agencies, including the Port Authority and the MBTA, withheld all the names, citing the possibility that it might infringe on the recipients’ privacy.
The Patrick administration also blacked out other information, such as references to public court documents that might contain the names of the workers. And the comptroller’s office withheld the names of individuals, companies, and other government agencies that received money from the state’s settlements and judgment account.
In 2010, the supervisor of records under Secretary of State William F. Galvin ordered the Patrick administration and some other agencies to turn over the names of the people who received settlements. But the state refused, arguing the supervisor was mistaken in his interpretation of the state’s Public Records Law.
In response, the Globe filed its 2011 lawsuit to obtain the names of the individuals.
In defending the lawsuit, the Patrick administration noted that companies in the private sector routinely use a guarantee of confidentiality as a means of encouraging parties to settle legal disputes without costly litigation.
But Connors rejected that point, writing, “Even if it is true that government might function more economically in its role as employer if it could enter into confidential agreements, this would not serve as a basis to override case law” that finds the Legislature never intended the names of public employees to be exempt from public disclosure.
The state, Connors said, is specifically “not permitted” to withhold “the names of public employees who receive public funds in settlements for claims, or other information on the basis simply that it might facilitate identification of those individuals.”
The state also argued that the names of persons receiving settlements could be withheld under the “personal privacy exemption” of the Public Records Law.
But Connors rejected that argument as well, noting that “it is a matter of settled law that ‘public employees, by virtue of their public employment, have diminished expectations of privacy,’ ” and concluding that a public employee’s right to privacy, at least in this instance, is outweighed by “the public’s recognized right to be informed about its government’s expenditures.”
In his decision, Connors noted that during fiscal 2012, which ended a year ago, the state budgeted and spent $10 million for settlements and judgments.
While fighting the Globe’s request for names, the Patrick administration said that the disclosure of those names could embarrass many public officials who were fired or demoted. But the Globe found that many of the agreements contained clauses barring the workers from saying anything critical about the government agencies.
For instance, former MBTA general manager Daniel Grabauskas said the transit authority tried to keep his $327,487 severance payment secret when he agreed to resign several years ago — asking him to sign a nondisclosure agreement. But Grabauskas insisted the language be removed from the final agreement he signed.
In fact, the offices of state Attorney General Martha Coakley and the state comptroller, Martin Benison, have advised agencies not to sign confidentiality agreements.
Michael Rezendes can be reached at email@example.com.