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Originally published Monday, October 22, 2012 at 8:27 PM

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State pays open-government coalition $65,000 to settle unusual records case

The state Attorney General's Office and the Department of Corrections have each paid the Washington Coalition for Open Government $32,500 to settle an unusual public-records lawsuit, the coalition announced Monday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The state Attorney General's Office and the Department of Corrections have each paid an open-government coalition $32,500 to settle an unusual public-records lawsuit, the coalition announced Monday.

In the 2010 lawsuit, the Washington Coalition for Open Government argued the state agencies violated the Public Records Act in an attempt to cover up evidence that they had assisted a group of corrections officers who sued to stop the Department of Corrections from disclosing public records about them to an inmate.

In other words, the coalition claimed the state was secretly helping a group of state employees sue the state.

The settlement was not an admission of guilt, officials said.

Dan Sytman, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, called it a "risk management decision" to prevent what would happen if the court "found even a minor violation of the Public Records Act."

But the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government called the case "troubling."

"State agencies should not help people sue an agency just because the agency doesn't want to release records," said Toby Nixon, a member of the Kirkland City Council.

The case dates back to a 2004 public-records request by convicted arsonist Allan Parmelee seeking information about corrections officers — presumably as a means of harassment.

Parmelee's persistent requests eventually led the Legislature to limit's inmates' access to use of the Public Records Act.

But back then, without that law on the books, the Department of Corrections was reluctantly considering releasing the information. So the employees filed suit to stop it from doing so.

Even though the Attorney General's Office was representing the Department of Corrections in the case, an employee with the Attorney General's Office emailed the corrections officers a sample document to help them with their suit. In the email, she stated that she "provided this form for informational purposes only," not as legal advice.

That email eventually came out in a public-records request by the open-government coalition, but not before the state tried to avoid releasing the records, the coalition said.

So in 2010, the coalition sued, leading to the $65,000 settlement reached in May.

The timing of the coalition's announcement — five months after the settlement and two weeks before a gubernatorial election featuring Attorney General Rob McKenna — may raise eyebrows.

But Nixon, of the coalition, called it a coincidence.

The McKenna campaign declined to comment, referring questions to the Attorney General's Office.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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