The Maine Monitor filed a lawsuit on Monday against York County, challenging its decision to deny a reporter access to public records about times it may have recorded private conversations between defendants being held at the York County Jail and their lawyers.
York County has refused to release records showing whether it recorded confidential conversations and if employees downloaded or played recordings of those calls. The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School and Sigmund Schutz, a partner with Preti Flaherty in Maine, challenged the county’s denial on behalf of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit that publishes The Maine Monitor, in Kennebec County Superior Court.
“This is about records that would show whether there’s illegal eavesdropping on attorney-client phone calls,” Schutz said.
The public has the right to know how government institutions operate, particularly ones that serve people who have freedoms taken away through the judicial process, he said.
In May 2020, The Maine Monitor was the first to report that a lawyer with the Office of the Maine Attorney General heard a recording of a lawyer and defendant speaking while reviewing jail phone calls. Since then, the news organization has documented hundreds of recordings of privileged calls at multiple jails.
The Maine Monitor has made over six dozen requests for records to Maine’s 15 county-run jails under the state’s Freedom of Access Act to better understand the jails’ surveillance of pretrial inmates. In response, Androscoggin, Aroostook, Franklin and Kennebec counties released data that showed how many attorney-client phone calls each jail recorded.
York County repeatedly denied The Maine Monitor’s requests made over the past 14 months to review inmate call data. The lawsuit is a “last resort” to ensure the jail exempts attorney calls from recording and is not listening to privileged conversations, Schutz said.
“The public records law is meant to avoid the kind of response, ‘trust me, we’re fine.’ It’s meant to allow the public and journalists, historians, academics — whoever — to be able to confirm for themselves what public institutions are doing,” Schutz said.
Maine Monitor reporter Samantha Hogan is an International Women’s Media Foundation grantee of the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Her reporting is also being supported by the Pulitzer Center, Report for America and the Investigative Editing Corps.