Yesterday Rob broke a still developing story about a former employee at the Ag Department who had filed complaints against Commissioner Doug Goehring concerning his professional conduct in the work place. In order to investigate his story, Rob was able to acquire copies of the complaints this employee made, as well as copies of the report that was completed by the states Risk Management Department.
I want to make something clear, I think this is an amazing story that Rob found. I think it is a story that needs to be told. I think in order to ensure accountability by all of our public officials, but especially by our elected officials, the public must have access to records of any complaints against them. Without access by the public to such records, in a state that is so dominated by one political party, it is too easy for the elite to protect its own and not shine the light on inappropriate behavior by officials.
However, I find myself questioning if making public the identity of the accuser in these cases is necessary. Harassment in the workplace is often an issue of power. In this case, Mr. Goehring, as the Ag Commissioner, has power over his subordinates. He has the power to control their jobs, to affect their livelihood, and to affect their future earning potential. Given that he already has such necessary power, is it appropriate for the state open records laws to give him even more power with the promise of public retribution and embarrassment should the people he harasses choose to file a complaint?
According to Rob’s story, others left the employment of the ag department as a result of Mr. Goehring’s actions. Were they less likely to file a formal complaint because of the threat of their claims becoming public? Did these non-claims allow Mr. Goehring to continue his inappropriate action longer?
In cases like this, 100% confidentiality can never be obtained. Obviously, in the process of the investigation, Mr. Goehring is going to learn the name of his accuser. People who are interviewed in the process of the investigation are going to know the name of the accuser. However, should the accuser be protected from further victimization by having their name released to the press, or to people who wish to use the allegations for political reasons, either to harm the reputation of the accuser in order to protect Mr. Goehring or to use the allegations against him?
At the end of the day, I think it is more important that we know about inappropriate and unethical behavior by our public officials than it is that we know who made the allegations. I think the answer to this does not mean overturning our open record laws or even changing how much the public has access to information. A very simple action of blacking out identifying information on any complaint forms to the public would allow accusers a little more anonymity and help to create an environment in which authority figures are not allowed to use the threat of public exposure as a tool to continue inappropriate behavior.