McKee orders RIDOT to refund news outlets for Washington Bridge emails

GOV. DANIEL J. MCKEE on Thursday ordered the R.I. Department of Transportation to refund news outlets what it charged them to obtain emails related to the closure of the Washington Bridge. PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

The Providence Journal had to pay $450 for emails detailing last December’s sudden closure of the Washington Bridge. WPRI-TV CBS 12 was charged $300. 

The Boston Globe? Nothing.  

The R.I. Department of Transportation on Jan. 30 released hundreds of emails detailing communication between state officials about the decision to close the bridge, along with their scramble to deal with the fallout. 

Rhode Island Current also requested emails over the bridge closure the same day as WPRI-12, but was forced to narrow its request to emails sent to or from a specific person. The amended request yielded no records, RIDOT said. 

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WJAR-TV NBC 10 also made a request for bridge-related emails in December and was told by the governor’s office the fee would be $1,000. The station filed an appeal with the Rhode Island Office of Attorney General. 

In an email Wednesday evening, RIDOT spokesperson Charles St. Martin cited a provision of the state’s Access to Public Records Act as the reason for the charges to the Journal and WPRI.  

But Thursday, Gov. Daniel J. McKee directed RIDOT to refund WPRI and the Providence Journal.  

“Going forward, RIDOT’s legal department will continue to follow the charging guidelines in the APRA statute, while also giving consistency to cases like this,” St. Martin said in a statement. 

WPRI investigative reporter and Target 12 Managing Editor Tim White said he’s happy McKee ordered the refund. 

“I hope this is a trend in the right direction,” said White, who was also a longtime board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition. 

White said he understands that work has to be put in to respond to records requests, but views fees charged to media “as a method to try and chill the request itself.” 

The real problem, he said, is getting a fee waived. APRA requires a requester to have a state judge review if “the information requested is in the public interest.”  

“I don’t think anyone can argue shedding light on what led up to the closure of the Washington Bridge isn’t in the public’s interest, yet requiring the public to petition the court to waive a fee is impractical,” White said. “It’s another example of why the law is deeply flawed and needs to be overhauled.” 

So why the initial difference in rates for the emails? 

“The Journal’s request was more expansive and required more time for search and retrieval than WPRI’s request, which is why the Journal was charged $450 and WPRI $300, respectively,” St. Martin said Wednesday. “When the Globe made its request, the documents the reporter was seeking had already been identified and compiled, so the outlet was not charged.” 

The Journal on Dec. 15, 2023, requested written correspondence from Dec. 7-11 between RIDOT employees and the governor’s office regarding the safety of the Washington Bridge. It also asked for written communication between RIDOT and employees of the Barletta-Aetna Joint Venture (two companies contracted to repair the westbound bridge), along with correspondence to the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration. 

WPRI on Dec. 13, 2023, requested “any and all emails, from 12/7 to 12/13, to and from RIDOT staff related to the Washington Bridge that carries I-195.” 

Boston Globe Rhode Island Editor Lylah Alphonse said in an email Thursday her team narrowed its original public records request related to the Washington Bridge after receiving an initial estimate of $450. 

“We do not know what other outlets requested or received, what fees they were originally quoted, or what they actually paid,” Alphonse said. “For what it’s worth: We believe that government records, especially those that are in the public’s interest, should be free and readily accessible to the public, including to journalists who represent the public.” 

“Reporting on safety issues and the closure of the Washington Bridge is absolutely in the public’s interest,” she continued. 

Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion said RIDOT’s decision to charge media outlets is “not a great precedent.” He said while the APRA law allows agencies to demand payment, they often don’t charge reporters. 

And if they do, news outlets historically don’t pay much. 

“This was an unusual situation,” Marion said. “Hopefully this norm of not typically charging the media for records that are clearly in the public interest doesn’t erode because of this one incident.” 

Rhode Island Current submitted a request on Dec. 13 for “any emails to or from Peter Alviti and or other internal communication within RIDOT, from July 2023 to Dec. 2023, regarding structural deficiencies on the west side of the Washington Bridge.”  

The same day, Laura Marasco in RIDOT’s office of legal counsel called to say the request could not be completed without a specific email address to search by. The request was narrowed down to  “all emails to, from, or that copied Director Alviti regarding the structural deficiencies on the west side of the Washington Bridge.” 

RIDOT legal counsel Stephanie Tasch on Dec. 27, 2023, issued a letter to Rhode Island Current saying the department “has no records responsive to this request.”  

But Rhode Island Current received the same public records sent to the other news outlets — free of charge — at around 6 p.m. Wednesday. No emails sent by Alviti or RIDOT Chief of Staff John Igliozzi were provided. 

NBC10 reporter Brian Crandall revealed on X Thursday that McKee’s office responded to the TV station’s public records request last December by saying it would cost $1,000 for bridge-related emails. 

Crandall said instead of paying, NBC-10 filed an appeal with the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office. The appeal remains pending. 

“I wonder what this means for our challenge,” he posted. 

Internal emails detail the moment engineers alerted RIDOT to the discovery of broken steel pins/rods that eventually shut down the westbound side of the bridge – cutting off the portion of I-195 used by 96,000 drivers daily. 

“There are 12 rods per pier with 2 rods per pier that are at the fascias and fully exposed as part of the original construction of the bridge,” Andrew Prezioso, a structural engineer working for VHB, emailed RIDOT project manager Anthony Pompei at 1:40 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8. “Of the 4 locations that are exposed, 2 locations show the rods have failed.” 

Alviti at a press conference on Dec. 12 said no visible damage to the rods existed during the bridge’s inspection last July. 

Emails also showcase state departments scheduling meetings and press conferences in the days after the bridge’s closure and concerns that the rods’ failure might not have been new.  

An hour after Prezioso’s Dec. 8 email, RIDOT Managing Engineer Keith Gualin wrote to Pompei “this condition may have pre-existed but was not noticeable until now as the area is more exposed due to current construction work.” 

Only one email was sent over the weekend before the Washington Brdige’s closure. It was from State Bridge Engineer John Preiss to Pompei on Sunday, Dec. 10, about monitoring traffic cameras on Friday. 

“Thanks Anthony,” it read. 

Marion wondered if RIDOT’s handling of public records could inhibit legislators seeking documents as part of upcoming joint House and Senate oversight hearings. 

“We’ve seen past administrations withhold documents,” Marion said. “Hopefully, the Legislature will exercise its significant oversight powers – they can subpoena records if they do.” 

But Marion is doubtful that will happen, saying the General Assembly in recent decades has shied away from using its subpoena power. 

“It’s sort of seen as a declaration of war,” he said. “I suspect unless RIDOT tries to stonewall them, they won’t use that power, but we’ll see in a couple of weeks how that plays out.” 

House spokesperson Larry Berman said the House and Senate Oversight committees are eyeing Feb. 12 for the first hearing, but that the date was not finalized as of Wednesday. 

Rep. Patricia Serpa, chairperson for the House Oversight Committee, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mark McKenney, chairperson of the Senate Oversight Committee, also did not respond to immediate request for comment. 

 Christopher Shea is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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