Monday, March 12, 2012

Will Minn Legislature authorize secret spying?

Minnesota law enforcement has proposed HF 2470/SF 1937 Criminal intelligence, and HF 2435/SF 2317 MNJAC-Fusion Center with  public hearings to start this week on them. The legislation allows law enforcement to expand their powers to collect data on you, to share it with others, and to have less public scrutiny than what current law now provides.

In the wake of 9/11 and the last decade laws have been legislated on the federal and state levels to collect more information on you. The proposed legislation means the police may soon be collecting information on citizens at an unprecedented level.

You might wonder why that matters to you, a law-abiding citizen.

And that's where we have to look at our recent history.  Remember, the Gang Strike Force aspersions and disgrace. Those of you who may not remember, part of the indignation over the matter was an existing database system that listed thousands of supposed "gang members." The criteria was set up by cops alone -- and people's names were added solely to the list the same way. It was easy to get on the list.  Being seen with an documented gang member, you were listed. If you have a suspicious tattoo that you had done on your trip to Hawaii, you were identified.  Even having a close relative on the wrong side of the law could get you possibly captured in the computer. Seen on the street with a convicted person? That could help put you on the list as well.

But more than that, GangNet was secret, unaccountable, and not transparent.  The most troubling part of that is that YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW IT.  Like all of the most insidious government records, the list was unknown.  They wouldn't tell you if you were on the list, wouldn't tell you why and wouldn't tell you how to get off the list. On the other hand, if you applied for a conceal and carry permit you could be denied based on your name being solely in GangNet, or you could be treated as a suspect and be under surveillance or background information gathered on you. Or pop up on a squad car computer screen as a dangerous character if you'd been stopped for something as innocuous as making a prohibited right turn on red.

Minnesota has a long history of these kinds of records. State authorities kept them during World War I to keep track of subversives -- often better known as German immigrants. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police recently had another system, called MNJO. Police developed extensive secret files ahead of the Republican National Convention in 2008. The files were none of your business -- and you couldn't even find out who had the right to look at them.

Almost two years ago, a state panel legislated by the Legislature met over a period of 5 months with hours and hours to discuss about the next generation of domestic intelligence gathering in Minnesota.  What they came up with was an executive summary report, but no concrete recommendations because law enforcement was not willing to compromise on major issues such as independent audits, transparency, public accountability, and the trigger that bring people into the database and files the "reasonable suspicion" standard.

Criminal intelligence can be collected on such simple things as a phone call to the police accusing you of being involved in drugs, or by an anonymous tip with any kind of accusation, or even if you are protesting against the war or big government.

How the local and state police use this kind of data, even with good intentions, raises far reaching constitutional rights issues regarding individual privacy, public accountability, and First Amendment issues.  There is a real possibility that innocent people could be speculated upon and branded as a suspect and be placed in a database secretly and unaccountable and then the data being shared throughout the state and to the Federal Government.

But I'd like to urge Minnesotans to mind these developments. Ask your legislator to keep track of these bills. Tell your lawmaker that you care about issues like whether or not police can keep files on people who aren't suspected of a crime. Ask who will be watching the watchers. Remind your lawmakers that the state gave you the right to see your personnel file at work, and that it is probably just as, if not more important, to know what the police think of you.

The  Minnesota State Legislature can ensure that the tools of law enforcement to solve crime and keep us safe do not become a device for a particular purpose of a police state.

Because if we have not learned anything from our history, from the abuses of the FBI to what has happened such as the Gang Strike Force scandal in Minnesota, it is this: a little misinformation and a mask of criminal suspicion can keep out of sight bad behavior and dereliction of duty by even the best intended in the midst of us.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunshine, Darkness, and Privacy: The Data Practice Subcommittee

At tomorrow night's Data Practices Subcommittee there will be several bills that will have an impact on the public right to know, but also to their privacy.  The proposals are very detailed and can have  major impacts in how the public relates and reacts to their government. It takes a lot of work by the Legislature and the Subcommittee exemplifies that by their dedication and expertise.

House File 2044
This bill will make public the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) electronic licensing data.  This data has been historically public until recent years.  Several years ago, DNR linked their licensing process to the Minnesota drivers license database.  The DNR process came under the drivers license law which made the data private.  DNR then went to electronic records and severed their relationship to the drivers license database, therefore they came to the Legislature a couple of years ago for permission.  The bill was on its way to make the records public again, but last minute "politics" made it private.  So here we are again.  I suggest that the data should become public.

House File 1784
This is a bill to correct a wrong which was done in the secrecy of the legislative process.  The passing of this bill will again bring public accountability to the IRRRB which was misdirected with legislation several years ago.  I have done a post on this at

House File 2701
The legislation proposed is very positive except for Section 1 of the bill and gets into the "meat" of policy affecting how far does the public have a right to know how its public money is being spent.  It also gives direction to the Department of Administration to help people understand the opinions that have been done by the AdMinn.

Section 1 of the bill which proposes a fee for "expedited" process for production of government data to a request flies in the face of the public ability to get access to their own government data to which they have already paid for.  Secondly, it sets up a "double standard" for people who have the money and people who do not have it.

I am not aware of any proposal or law in other states that do this with their general access provisions.  There are specifics, such as quick access to copies birth certificates or a new driver's license or replacement.

House File 2647
This bill came about because of the Burnsville Superintendent/Human Resources squabble and a $250,000 pay out.  The bill is a beginning, but I think there can be a more accountable and broader fix for this situation which represents the tip of the iceberg of these kind of situations that have permeated the local political subdivisions.  Huge amounts of public monies spent on making people go away and not to have the "public" know why is asinine and runs contrary to public scrutiny and accountability.

I suggest apply local political subdivisions to the "public official" section of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  This is outlined in a post I did several days ago.

I encourage the public to go to the meeting and participate.  You will see people, lobbyists, and various interests that "pop out" of the woodwork to get their amendment added, but you will also see the commitment of a small group of legislators to a very important subject that has a huge impact on you and I and our role with our government.

MONDAY, March 12, 2012  -  6:15 PM
Meeting Time Note: *Time is subject to change based on Floor Session.
Data Practices Subcommittee
Room: Basement State Office Building
Chair: Rep. Peggy Scott
Agenda: HF2044 (Petersen) Natural resources department electronic licensing classifications repealed.
HF1784 (Anzelc) Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board regulated, and classification of loan or equity investment application data modified.
HF2701 (Holberg) Expedited data requests provided, subcontract filing with government entity required, and other miscellaneous changes made.
HF2668 (Holberg) Fiscal note unofficial data classified.
HF2647 (Myhra) Public data definition relating to agreements involving payment of public money clarified.
*Order of bills is subject to change.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Burnsville's quarter million $ legislative fix, not enough

As the media poured out details of the quarter million dollar payout to the Burnsville School Districts former human resources director, legislators have been receiving e-mails, letters, and a lot of communication from their constituents.  The emphasis of the public frustration to the elected officials---Why are the reasons for the payout not public?

Slowly, but surely the Legislature had to act.  To go boldly where they have gone before, to react to the media and public attention on the story.

A legislator decided to come up with a bill.  Representative Pam Myhra introduced House File 2647.  Does it solve the problem completely?  No.

The bill may clarify what a settlement is and therefore more public data to know the reasons why.

But just like in other situations where there is publicity and public attention on a controversial item, the Legislature can move to solve part of the problem, make effort to solve it, or completely ignore it.

I have spoken with Representative Myhra and briefly with Representative Garofalo, Chairman of the House Education Finance on the bill and shared my views.

In the Pioneer Press today, it was stated that Ms. Chance filed a complaint against the School District's Superintendent with the Board of School Administrators.  What did the Board do with the complaint?  Did the Administrators Board investigate the Superintendent?

Is there a completion of an investigation of the Superintendent that can give the public more details and rationale as to why $250,000 of public monies was paid out? I would say more than likely, but we will never find out because it is not public.

Now, this is where there can be "more" legislative "fix in".

In 1995, legislation was done to allow investigations of a complaint or charge against a public official either upon completion of an investigation or if the public official resigned or terminated while the issue was pending, all data related to the complaint or charge are public.  Public official is narrowly defined, but the law only applies on the state level.

At the Conference Committee of the bill, discussion and advocacy to include it for local political subdivisions such as cities, counties, and school districts was made.  The local government associations opposed it, primarily the Minnesota School Board Association.

17 years later, the Minnesota Legislature can correct the mistake they made.  Since the law was enacted and even before then, there have been many buyouts, payouts, and settlements with a great amount of public dollars involving heads of school districts, and administrative heads of city and county departments, involved with a charge or complaint and who resign or terminate.

I think the Legislature should amend the following to include local political subdivisions. With this proposed change and what is in the current bill there can be better and improved accountability and transparency for the public on these kind of matters.

Minnesota State Statute-13.43, subdivision 2 (8) (e)
(e) Notwithstanding paragraph (a), clause (5), upon completion of an investigation of a complaint or charge against a public official, or if a public official resigns or is terminated from employment while the complaint or charge is pending, all data relating to the complaint or charge are public, unless access to the data would jeopardize an active investigation or reveal confidential sources. For purposes of this paragraph, "public official" means:
(1) the head of a state agency and deputy and assistant state agency heads;
(2) members of boards or commissions required by law to be appointed by the governor or other elective officers; and
(3) executive or administrative heads of departments, bureaus, divisions, or institutions within state government.