Last summer, a Democratic campaign group was searching for information on a Massachusetts Republican hoping to unseat US Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the US Senate, filed a public records request with the state for any communications with Beth Lindstrom , who served as secretary of consumer affairs under former governor Mitt Romney. If Lindstrom wins the Massachusetts Republican primary, she will face off against Warren in the general election in November.
But the Democratic group ran into a small roadblock: The Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation said the records would cost $245,425, the highest fee estimate issued by any state agency for public records in Massachusetts last year, according to data collected by the secretary of state’s office.
The consumer affairs agency estimated it would take roughly 9,800 hours to review 57,000 e-mails and 19,000 attachments. Specifically, officials said they thought it would take seven minutes to review each e-mail and another 10 minutes to redact each attachment. That doesn’t include any documents in Lindstrom’s hard drive or file folders, which would cost extra.
The researcher who filed the request, Ramzi Ebbini, did not return calls seeking comment. But the administration of Governor Charlie Baker said the quarter-of-a-million-dollar estimate had nothing to do with the fact that Ebbini was a Democratic opposition researcher asking for records from a Republican administration.
“The cost estimate we provided is agnostic of the requestor,” said Jacqueline Horigan, a spokeswoman for the consumer affairs office. She said the agency later reduced the fee estimate to $50,913 after the researcher agreed to modify his request, but never got any response from the researcher.
State agencies often charge little or nothing for small routine requests for documents in Massachusetts. But the response to Ebbini shows it can still be expensive to difficult to obtain some records, such as large caches of e-mail, which agencies insist be carefully reviewed before release.
In at least three other cases last year, state agencies also billed requesters for more than $10,000 for records, according to information submitted to the secretary of state’s office, which is charged with helping oversee the state public records law.
For example, the Board of Registration in Medicine requested $16,800 for a copy of its public database of physicians. Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office later ordered the office to reduce the estimate, but the board refused. Galvin referred the matter in November to Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office is reviewing the case.
The state doesn’t track how much cities and towns charge for records. But some have issued hefty fee estimates of their own, despite changes in the public records law that went into effect last year to limit fees. The Boston Police Department, for example, tried to charge a WBUR reporter $10,825 for a day’s worth of footage from body cameras, citing the need to review and redact the footage. The reporter appealed the fee estimate to the secretary of state’s office, which ordered the city to reduce the fee estimate earlier this year.
Journalists “are still getting whacked,” said Peter Caruso Sr., an Andover attorney who represents a number of local news organizations and is board member for the New England First Amendment Coalition. “They are still paying what I consider to be outrageous fees.”Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.