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Arizona Republicans Exempt Themselves From Open Records Rules

The new standard “benefits lawmakers who want to hide the truth,” one open government advocate said.

Contractors working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate, examine and recount ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 8, 2021, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Republicans in the Arizona state legislature have crafted new rules to shield themselves from future public records requests — an action that open government advocates say is a direct response to requests over the past few years related to the GOP’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

A recent state Supreme Court ruling determined that the judicial branch in Arizona lacks the authority to enforce laws on how Arizonans can request open records from within the legislative branch. In response to that ruling, both houses of the state legislature, which are controlled by Republicans, voted earlier this week to change standards for handling and maintaining communications records among their members and staff.

The new rules exempt legislative lawmakers and their staffers from having to adhere to state public records laws. The rules also authorize the destruction of communications, such as emails and text messages, after 90 days — a timeframe in which many interested parties, including journalists, investigators and residents, may not even know that such records exist.

Some of the rules differ between the two legislative chambers. In the state House, for example, the new rules enable lawmakers to immediately delete all text messages they send or receive, as well as any calendar records and communications on social media. While text messages must be maintained for 90 days in the state Senate, the rule only applies to government devices — lawmakers are allowed to immediately delete communications from their personal devices if they wish to do so.

Following the 2020 presidential election, in which President Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win the state in decades, Arizona lawmakers demanded numerous audits in response to unfounded complaints from far right activists about alleged election fraud. One of these audits was performed by an unqualified organization called Cyber Ninjas; much of the reporting on that audit was obtained through open records requests to the state legislature. Open records requests were also responsible for making public emails in which Ginni Thomas, wife to federal Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, urged Arizona legislators to overturn the election results.

Open government advocates noted that, had the rules that Republicans passed this week been in place prior to the 2020 election, much of that information wouldn’t have been attainable.

“This rule change only benefits lawmakers who want to hide the truth from the people they serve,” Heather Sawyer, executive director at American Oversight, said to NBC News.

The new rules will “further obscure the roles of far-right national groups,” Brendan Fischer, head of the group Documented, said to The Washington Post.

Michael Squires, editor for ProPublica in the southwest region of the U.S., expressed his disgust with Republicans’ action on social media. “The clown car gets tinted windows,” Squires wrote.

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