DENVER - The Colorado Attorney General's Office is asking a Denver County Court to affirm their desire to keep complaints against a business secret.
The legal action follows CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon's requests for complaints against a company called First American Monetary Consultants. She was researching a tip about complaints regarding that company and wanted to see consumer complaints filed with the Attorney General's Office.
Rabon's request for the documents was denied, citing Colorado's Consumer Protection Act. That law gives the Attorney General discretion to release - or not release - consumer complaint information.
The same complaints, however, were freely given by the Attorney General to the Better Business Bureau.
Rabon originally requested only consumer complaints specifically about First American Monetary Consultants but, in an additional request, CALL7 Producer Michael de Yoanna asked for every complaint that had already been shared with the BBB or other agencies.
The request submitted on Aug. 6, 2013 asked the AG to provide, "Every complaint, including consumer complaints, the Colorado Attorney General's Office has shared between Jan. 1, 2011 and today with non-governmental third parties with businesses and nonprofits, including but not limited to, organizations with a publishing wing, such as the Better Business Bureau, and similar organizations, such as newspapers and television stations."
Additionally, on July 19, AG spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler acknowledged that complaints are shared with the BBB under the understanding the BBB will keep them confidential.
"Consumer complaints are shared with the BBB's with the explicit understanding that they will not make those complaints available to the public - consistent with our own long-standing policy not to disclose those complaints to the public," Tyler wrote.
The Attorney General's office did acknowledge receipt of 32 complaints against First American Monetary Consultants. About half of those were received within the last two years, they said.
Thursday, 7NEWS and parent company E.W. Scripps were sent a summons and several other legal exhibits detailing the exchanges between the CALL7 Investigators and the Attorney General's Office. According to Deputy Attorney General David Blake's email, the AG is "seeking an order from the Denver County District Court pursuant to § 24-72-204(6)(a), C.R.S. (2012) regarding our discretion to restrict disclosure of the consumer complaints KMGH-TV has sought."
"These very documents are open to the public in other states," protests Jeff Harris, News Director for 7NEWS. "In Colorado, they are secret at the Attorney General’s discretion."
In the complaint submitted to the court, the AG's office writes that sharing the complaints with the BBB "enables consumers to obtain informal resolution of their complaints through the BBB’s mediation services."
"These consumer complaints are critical for the public in making decisions on how and with whom they choose to do business and the AG’s Office is arguing they need to be secret to protect investigations they don’t acknowledge or talk about. Yet, they turn over these same complaints to an organization that represents the interests of businesses," Harris said.
In 2012, Blake and another representative of the Attorney General's office spoke at a senate judiciary committee hearing on legislation clarifying the Colorado Open Records Act. According to the summary of the meeting, they argued in support of the bill "to protect the reputation of those who are investigated," ensure the targets of investigation are not aware and to avoid a stigma that "may be attached to individuals who are investigated by the Office of the Attorney General."
Throughout the legislative process, the scope of the bill's protection for keeping documents secret was narrowed three times. HB 12-1036 originally contained just five broad lines while the second version contained 16. In the final version, amended more than a month after the committee hearing, the clarifications grew to 25 lines.
That version did become law.
"He already lost that battle in the legislature," open records expert and attorney Ashley Kissinger said of the Attorney General's advocacy for the bill. "Now he's seeking to go the litigation route and get a court to say 'you can do this, even though the legislature said you can't do it.' His legal arguments are without merit, and I think he's going to lose the case."