PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office ruled Monday that Jamestown officials violated the state’s public records law when it heavily redacted the nomination papers of congressional candidate Sabina Matos.
WPRI and The Providence Journal filed Access to Public Records Act complaints with Neronha’s office after the town blacked out the addresses and signatures of people the Matos campaign used to get on the ballot.
The seven-page decision written by Special Assistant Attorney General Patrick Reynolds determined the public’s right to know outweighed any individual’s privacy interests.
“The verification of nominating signatures is an important part of the electoral process in Rhode Island,” Reynolds wrote. “Here, the complainants’ requests were made in the context of allegations that irregularities existed in the names and signatures on the nomination paper at issue.”
“The public release of the information implicated by this narrowly tailored request can reasonably be expected to shed light on this important public interest,” he added.
The nomination papers are central to a scandal that’s rocked the Matos campaign. In July, election officials in Jamestown spotted irregularities in some of the signatures gathered by Matos campaign contractor Holly McLaren. Target 12 later tracked down several individuals in Newport and Barrington who said their names were forged but were nonetheless accepted by the local boards of canvassers.
At the time, Target 12 requested a copy of the nomination paperwork that was being scrutinized in Jamestown. The documentation was also presented to the board of canvassers at a July 17 open meeting. In response, the town initially forwarded a statement from the Jamestown police department announcing a criminal investigation.
After requesting the information again, the town provided the documents but with voter addresses and signatures blacked out. The town also redacted Matos’s name (though they later admitted that was a mistake).
In the complaint to the attorney general, WPRI argued redacting the information prevented the public and journalists from checking to see if the names were legitimate.
In a footnote, Reynolds noted the privacy interest argument falls short when the signatures being redacted aren’t legitimate.
“To the extent there is a question about whether certain of the signatures were forged, then it does not appear that individuals would have any privacy interest in a signature that is not theirs,” Reynolds wrote.
The order instructed Jamestown to provide the unredacted nomination paperwork within two days of the decision, but the attorney general declined to fine the town, explaining the town’s unlawful redactions were not a willful act and officials acted in good faith.
Earlier this month the R.I. Board of Elections decided to review the signatures submitted by the Matos campaign, despite refusing to do so earlier in the scandal. The BOE announced their audit found no widespread fraud and Matos had enough signatures to make the ballot.