Does court ruling on AG consumer complaints have broader implications?

A court decision last week that let the Colorado Attorney General turn over consumer complaints to the Better Business Bureau, but not to a Denver TV news organization, may have broader implications for the release of public records.

In June, KMGH-TV (7News) investigative reporter Keli Rabon asked the AG’s Consumer Protection Services Unit for consumer complaints involving First American Monetary Consultants, a company accused of selling gold under religious pretenses but failing to deliver. Rabon had already obtained consumer complaints against the company from state agencies in Ohio, Texas, Florida and Tennessee. But the Colorado AG denied her request, and Denver District Court Judge Martin Egelhoff upheld that denial in a ruling on Dec. 6.

The AG’s office started collecting consumer complaints against First American in 2008. But it never launched an investigation, instead forwarding the complaints to the Mountain States Better Business Bureau (BBB) for dispute resolution.

Attorney General John Suthers filed a legal action against KMGH in August to keep the complaints confidential. Attorneys for Rabon argued that the complaints are public records, especially considering that the AG had shared copies with the BBB, a private, non-governmental agency.

But the court determined that the Colorado Consumer Protection Act views the consumer complaints as “records of investigations” and “intelligence information,” non-public records that may be deemed public records only at the AG’s discretion. The AG handed them over to the BBB “with the express understanding that they would remain confidential” and stopped the practice when it learned in late July or early August that the BBB had begun to put redacted versions of the complaints on its website, the judge noted.

Still, Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, wonders whether the ruling will affect future requests for public records under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA).

“We are concerned that the judge endorsed the practice of selectively providing records to some members of the public (the BBB) then denying access to KMGH,” Toro said. “One of the principles of CORA is that the purpose for which records are requested does not matter – public documents belong to the public and should be available for inspection by anyone.

“The government should not be allowed to play favorites as to which private citizens get access to records.”

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