Kentucky governor accused of violating open records act on COVID school closures

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear violated Kentucky’s open records law by denying a request for correspondences related to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the state’s Republican attorney general.

In an order issued Tuesday, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron wrote that Beshear’s office wrongly denied a records request from the Republican Party of Kentucky for correspondence to or from 13 named officials “mentioning or related to school closures, remote leaning, nontraditional instruction or NTI, KEA or the Kentucky Education Association, JCTA or the Jefferson County Teachers Association” from 2020 to the present.

The records request was made by Kentucky GOP spokesman Sean Southard on Dec. 2, 2022. The named officials include Beshear and current and former members of his administration, Kentucky Democratic Party Executive Director Sebastian Kitchen, state lawmakers, and Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell.

On Dec. 9, the governor’s office responded, complying in part but denying the vast majority of the request for “any and all correspondence” by or to those officials. Taylor Payne, who serves as Beshear’s deputy general counsel and was named in Southard’s request, denied it on grounds that it was too broad and “it does not enable ‘a reasonable person to ascertain the nature and scope of … the request.'” 

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FILE - Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during the opening day of the Kentucky State Legislature special session in Frankfort, Kentucky, Sept. 7, 2021. 

FILE – Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during the opening day of the Kentucky State Legislature special session in Frankfort, Kentucky, Sept. 7, 2021.  (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Beshear’s attorneys argued that complying with the request “would require the retrieval and review of every other electronic or physical correspondence to or from the identified individuals over the span of more than three years to determine whether the correspondence contained one of the eight identified terms.” 

Southard appealed to the attorney general on Dec. 14, and Cameron’s official decision came Tuesday. 

“The agency claims it cannot determine the scope of the Appellant’s request because he seeks ‘any and all records’ related to certain subjects. But the Appellant did not request ‘any and all records,’” Cameron wrote. “Rather, he requested ‘correspondence,’ the ordinary meaning of which is ‘letters or emails exchanged.’”

“Thus, the Appellant has limited his request by persons, time frame, subject matter, and type of records,” the attorney general ruled. 

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Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaks to members of the press after the oral arguments of the Cameron v. EMW Women’s Surgical Center case were heard at the U.S. Supreme Court Oct. 12, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaks to members of the press after the oral arguments of the Cameron v. EMW Women’s Surgical Center case were heard at the U.S. Supreme Court Oct. 12, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

He added that the Republican Party of Kentucky clarified upon appeal that the governor’s office can satisfy their request by searching the e-mail accounts of the named officials using the names and search terms he provided. 

In a statement, the Kentucky GOP accused Beshear of “stonewalling” their request and blasted the governor’s administration for failing to comply.

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A child puts her mask back on after finishing lunch at a socially distanced table in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky.

A child puts her mask back on after finishing lunch at a socially distanced table in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

“Andy Beshear continues to escape scrutiny for how he and his team made decisions related to school closures during the pandemic,” Southard said. “After presiding over historic learning loss for students, doesn’t Andy Beshear owe parents transparency about who was advising him and how he made decisions? What is he trying to hide?”

“It appears transparency about the education of our children isn’t important enough to Andy Beshear to do a simple e-mail search,” he added. “Given his gross mishandling of open records in the past, it is incumbent upon Andy and his team to be fully transparent with the public.”

Southard told Fox News Digital the next step for the GOP is to go back to the governor and see if he will respect the ruling and release the request records. Beshear could invite a lawsuit by failing to comply. 

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“We aren’t ruling anything out,” Southard said. “Andy Beshear owes parents transparency.” 

Beshear’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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