Spokane County has settled a second lawsuit after failing to provide public records related to the psychiatric treatment of county jail inmates.
This time, taxpayers are on the hook for $100,000.
“I’m hoping that the impact of this case will help clarify the jail’s duty to fairly and accurately respond to public records requests,” said Jeffry Finer, the Center for Justice attorney who filed suit against the county last year.
In July 2014, the Center for Justice requested a copy of the jail’s license to administer mental health care, as well as the application for that license and other documents pertaining to $300,000 in annual funding from the state Department of Social and Health Services.
The county responded the following month with a copy of the license, but did not provide the other requested materials, including a state audit of the jail’s mental health care.
“I got one page – a document that was suitable for framing, a certificate,” Finer said. “I didn’t get the application materials – nothing. They stiffed me on the other documents. They sent me one page, knowing they had scores of documents, hundreds of them.”
Finer said he repeatedly questioned the county’s response and was told, “We gave you everything we had.”
In July 2015, Finer interviewed the jail’s mental health care supervisor, Kristina Ray, as part of a separate lawsuit brought by Robert “Danny” Lee, who had spent a week in jail without his prescribed psychiatric medications in 2013.
In the deposition, Ray told Finer that the jail had many of the documents he had requested a year earlier.
The county previously paid $50,000 to Lee’s family to settle a claim over the medication delay. It also paid $28,000 in penalties for failing to disclose a one-page memo that said inmates would not be given medications they bring with them to the jail.
Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns approved the latest settlement during a meeting Tuesday. Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn was absent.
Steve Bartel, the county’s risk manager, said records officials didn’t find all the requested documents in part because of confusion after the county took authority over the jail from the Sheriff’s Office in 2013. To prevent future mishaps, the county will focus on training employees to conduct more thorough and timely searches, he said.
Bartel acknowledged that $100,000 is “a lot of money” but said it’s a small price compared to the fines that could be imposed if the county were to lose at trial.
Under state law, penalties for failing to disclose public records can be up to $100 per document, per day it is not disclosed. According to Finer, hundreds of pages of records were not disclosed for nearly two years.
“The potential is quite honestly pretty dramatic,” Bartel said. “It can get expensive pretty quickly.”
Bartel said the undisclosed documents were uncontroversial, and the county had “no reason” to keep them from public view.
Finer said he’s still in the process of reviewing them.
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