In a season of cutbacks, Seattle Times reporter Christine Willmsen was surprised to see the state government proposing a budget increase.
“I noted an add-on of an addition of over $20 million, and I thought that was odd,” Willmsen said.
The budget listed a line item increase for civil commitment, which is a program that allows the state to detain sexually violent predators indefinitely. It also mentioned a Washington State Supreme Court decision that would require annual civil commitment trials for violent sexual offenders. This would give the sexual offenders more opportunities to be released but potentially cost taxpayers an additional $22.5 million a year. The court decision is being reconsidered and a final decision should be given later this year, wrote Willmsen, in one of her articles.
However, before a sex offender is even deemed a “sexually violent predator” who deserves civil commitment, there is a trial. Taxpayers cover the cost for the sex offenders’ numerous defense experts.
In order to find out how much taxpayers were already paying for the program, The Seattle Times and its attorney battled lawyers to obtain defense experts’ invoices from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. To understand why particular experts were being approved Willmsen had to persuade judges to unseal court documents that listed funding approvals.
“When it was completely sealed, you had no idea what the justification was for the defense attorney hiring the psychologist,” Willmsen said.
All of the documentation Willmsen gathered helped her to produce a four part series in January. Following that, legislation that had been pending was unanimously passed by the state legislature in March. The bill aims to decrease costs and centralize oversight.
Here’s how Willmsen overcame obstacles during her public records quest.
Battling the state
To get financial invoices from defense psychologists, Willmsen submitted a public records request to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.
Originally, the department said the invoices were medical records and could not be given out. After discussions, they gave up some of the records but then notified the sex offenders and their attorneys. This gave the defense attorneys the opportunity to file a temporary restraining order, or lawsuit, that would prevent the release of the invoices.
Two public-defense associations filed a lawsuit, but The Seattle Times and its attorney proved the documents were public record and King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty ordered the release of approximately 329 pages of billing records.
Accessing sealed court documents of funding approvals didn’t require a public records request or going to trial but was still challenging.
“I was looking at the civil commitment cases and many (documents) were sealed by the judges, another level of secrecy that we had to fight,” Willmsen said. “I contacted the judges and kind of explained to them that I thought they had improperly sealed them.”
Willmsen used Yakima County v. Yakima Herald-Republic, a previous Washington State Supreme Court decision, to convince the judges that the records were public. The decision meant, “the public had a right to see certain records of spending by public defenders,” Willmsen wrote in her article “Sex offenders’ legal costs were kept secret from public.”
“It’s really important to stay on top of those kinds of decisions so you can see if they are applicable to information you are seeking,” Willmsen said.
In the end, The Seattle Times obtained 240 documents from 13 commitment cases, but Willmsen wrote, “there are likely hundreds of documents still improperly sealed in other King County civil-commitment cases.”
Building the database
After negotiating for the information Willmsen still had to put together the database.
She took financial line items from PDFs that involved experts, paralegals, investigators and others and built them into an Excel sheet.
“I had to strip it out and cut and paste it,” she said. “And you can imagine how long that took.”
She analyzed several years back to discover who the top earners were among psychologists and experts. She also compared what the defense attorneys said they were billing for versus the experts and found it didn’t match up.
“I am not sure it was intentional, I am not sure what was happening,” she said, “but I am sure that the records should have reflected about the same amount for conversations and hours (billed) and it didn’t,” she said.
“If reporters want to look at this type of story in their state, thing is, is to really get an understanding of the legal process,” Willmsen said. “It is a very complicated story and sometimes complicated stories take a longer time to understand.”
Also, a good way to get started is to find out what kind of documentation is filed, she said.
For her story, she spoke with county and state officials to learn about the processes and get copies of the applications and forms that experts filed to get paid.
“In any story, you want to find the paper trail,” Willmsen said.
Johanna Somers is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.