Brilliant Ohio Grifters Make Money When Small Towns Destroy Public Records

Ohio's public records law has a provision fining municipalities that improperly dispose of official documents. And a bunch of "citizen activists" there have realized that a lot of towns dispose of a lot of records improperly.

Ohio's Supreme Court (led by chief justice and Gawker writer Maureen O'Connor!) heard a case yesterday in which Timothy Rhodes is suing the small town of New Philadelphia for failing to hand over more than 20 years of recorded 911 calls. Turns out the town had simply recorded over old tapes. But since it never developed a formal "records retention policy" authorizing that practice, it was technically required to preserve every call, forever, and hand them over to anyone who asked. Since it didn't, it has to pay requesters a fine of, let's see, "$1,000 a day for every one of the 4,968 days of records that were destroyed" comes to $4.9 million. A lower court reduced that to a less eye-popping $84,000, but it still beats working, right?

Other communities — including Canfield, Willard and East Liverpool — are embroiled in similar court battles worth millions of dollars in combined penalties.

Rhodes' motivation for seeking the records is the heart of the legal question.

"Every city in the state of Ohio recycles these tapes just like the city of New Philadelphia did," [New Philidelphia's attorney John] McLandrich said ahead of Wednesday's proceeding. "The fact of the matter is they knew they [the tapes] weren't there and that's why they wanted them. So he wrote to enough cities until he found one that didn't have a records retention policy on file, and that's the one he asked."

FOIA for fun and profit!

[Photo via Shutterstock]