An inexperienced defendant appeared in New Britain Superior Court today. Me.
As a reporter I get lots of tips. Someone told me, in January 2004, that I should look into an Internal Affairs investigation launched by the Hartford Police Department against Officer Richard Rodriguez. This cop led the department’s Explorer’s program, a mentoring outfit for urban youth. He’s also president of the police union.I filed a Freedom of Information request with HPD, asking for the document. The city told me I couldn’t have it.That kicked off what has become a protracted legal battle. Earlier this year, almost a full 12 months after I first asked HPD for the document, the Freedom of Information Commission ordered the city to give it to me. From a public access point of view, the FOIC delivered a wonderful ruling: A police Internal Affairs investigation is not the same as a criminal investigation, the commission ruled, so none of those reports- in any police department- are exempt from disclosure.But Rodriguez wants to keep his record sealed. His personal lawyer, Hartford solo Michael Georgetti, appealed the FOIC’s ruling to Superior Court. Georgetti wants the case remanded to the commission so it can hear more evidence. That’s why we’re in court today: Georgetti, FOIC staff lawyer Tracie Brown, Hartford assistant corporation counsel Helen Apostolidis, and me, the only non-lawyer in the group. I’m nervous. Arguing at the FOIC is one thing. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the commissioners sit across a table from you. But court is very formal. Wood paneling, a court reporter and a clerk. I sit at one table with Apostolidis, while Brown sits with Georgetti at the so-called “plaintiff’s table,” though in reality, Brown’s client is a defendant like me. Georgetti is the only one arguing to keep the document secret. The three of us want it released. Apostolidis did an about-face at the final FOIC meeting, telling the commissioners that after reviewing the disputed document, the city no longer believed it was exempt from release. For the first time in my journalism career, the City of Hartford has taken an official position that matches mine.At 3:37 p.m., a tap on the door. Everyone in the courtroom stands, me a split second behind, as Judge George Levine strides to the bench. Salt and pepper hair with silver rimmed glasses perched halfway down the bridge of his nose, he looks like a judge all right, and I hope some karmic force gave me a judge with my own last name. But he pronounces the ‘i’ in Levine with a hard ‘e,’ so it rhymes with seen. I rhyme mine with wine.With Brown and Apostolidis arguing my side today, I think if I can contribute any thoughts that actually matter, I’m ahead of the game. In my mind, my main function is to show the judge that I care, that I won’t go away, that I’ve already been waiting for this document for a year and a half. A remand back to the FOIC likely means another year of wrangling, and I want the document now. My mission is to look serious, to avoid sounding like a total idiot, and to get out of here with my case still alive. The FOIC erred, Georgetti argues to Judge Levine, because the document is clearly a criminal investigation and should be exempt from disclosure. If the case goes back to the commission, he plans to call the head of internal affairs to testify about just what kind of investigation this is. But Georgetti already had his chance to present evidence at the FOIC, Brown counters, and he didn’t do it. At this point Judge Levine checks his legal books and reads aloud the relevant statute: For a case to be remanded to an agency (like the FOIC) for more evidence, the court must be shown “good reasons” why the evidence wasn’t presented in the first place. I pick up on this in my address to the judge. Standing while speaking to him, I feel totally exposed- not at all like covering politics, where most conversations take place on the phone, behind pillars or in doorways. I told the judge how long I have been waiting for the document, and that so far, Georgetti has listed no “good reasons” why he didn’t present his evidence to the commission when he had the chance.Apostolidis takes a entirely different tack, saying Georgetti shouldn’t even be allowed to make his arguments in court at all, that he should only be allowed to appeal a different section of FOI law. After a round of back and forth, the judge decides to schedule another hearing which will delve into these questions. The lawyers and I will have an opportunity to file briefs ahead of time. The burden will be on Georgetti to come up with good reasons why he didn’t present his evidence before the FOIC in the first place, the judge explained.Then Judge Levine looked at me. “Why do you pronounce our name like that?” he asked.“I grew up in Chicago, your honor,” I replied.“Well, that explains everything,” he said.He took care of a few more housekeeping details, then exited the room as we stood.