The Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has officially denied a request for public records for a copy of its contract with On-Line Information Services (OLIS), a Mobile-based information technology company that provides a software suite for court management and public access to court documents.
As Lagniappe reported in August, OLIS is owned in part by former Lt. Gov. Steve Windom and is currently in the 10th year of a 15-year contract with AOC for software known as Alacourt, AlaFile, AlaVault and AlaPay. Alabama was the first state in the nation to implement a statewide “e-file” system for courts, which allows attorneys and judges to file documents, schedule court hearings and submit payments online. One element also provides a public access portal — essentially a search engine — for court records and documents online.
Similar contracts between some other states and information technology providers are readily available online, and in June, the state of West Virginia voluntarily released its own contract with OLIS in response to a public records request from Lagniappe. There, the contract revealed the company will earn a minimum of $82,500 per month when the system is fully integrated, while it will also have a share in additional revenues from the sale of subscriptions and documents. Alabama has roughly three times the caseload of West Virginia in state courts, according to information compiled by the National Center for State Courts.
Scott Hoyem, public information officer for AOC, said the request in Alabama was denied because the contract allegedly “relates to critical infrastructure, an exception to the Alabama Open Records Act (ORA), and we feel that release of the requested document could compromise the integrity and security of the Alacourt case management system.”
As defined in a federal law created in the wake of 9/11, the term “critical infrastructure” encompasses “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.” A separate but similar federal law also protects “critical electric infrastructure information.”
Alabama’s Open Records Act allows for exemptions to the public disclosure of information related to critical infrastructure if “it could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety or welfare” or “would otherwise be detrimental to the best interests of the public.”
Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, said, “I find it highly unlikely that the Alacourt court records system or contract for the system qualifies as ‘critical infrastructure’ as defined.”
Hoyem did not respond to a request about administrative remedies or appeals for the denial. Bailey suggested if part of the contract contained sensitive information, the information should be redacted while the rest of the contract should be disclosed.
“Assuming there is something in the contract that qualifies for protection, it does not follow that ALL of the contract is a threat to national security, particularly the economic terms,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, there is no express statement in the ORA about this. Local courts have in the past redacted personal privacy information before turning over documents under the ORA. If the entire contract is withheld because part of it is privileged, then how would the public know what the state was paying for the system?”
The ORA does explicitly state “any public officer who receives a request for records that may appear to relate to critical infrastructure or critical energy infrastructure information, shall notify the owner of such infrastructure in writing of the request and provide the owner an opportunity to comment on the request and on the threats to public safety or welfare that could reasonably be expected from public disclosure on the records.”
Hoyem did not disclose whether OLIS was notified about the request, or whether it provided comment on the request.
“I suspect that the vendor simply wants to keep secret the terms of the contract so it will be harder for competitors to present a competing plan/product,” Bailey offered. “They may have the best program in the world but, if not, the state could save money if other companies could see the terms of the contract and bid apples to apples.”
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