Lawmakers' cell phones often out of public's reach

By Julie Carr Smyth

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 12 2011 11:59 p.m. MST

For one thing, lawmakers are generally protected by "legislative privilege," which shields certain communications so lawmakers aren't impeded from freely doing their jobs.

"These things are never quite as easy because these are both constitutional rights: the right of privacy and the right to know," Aronoff said. "From the beginning of our country, these have been two rights that are bumping into each other and you can make good cases for all of them. Is giving truth serum right or not?"

Aronoff retired as Senate president in 1996. Riffe, the House speaker, died in 1997.

Erickson said the cell phone conundrum began with the best intentions. Legislatures trying to save taxpayers money opted not to pay for lawmakers' private cell phones.

As the technology has become pervasive, legislators have been able to circumvent public disclosure by avoiding their more likely public land lines. Many avoid their state-sponsored e-mail accounts, too, recognizing that those communications are more readily available through public records requests.

And there is another twist, Erickson says: Even state legislators' activity on taxpayer-funded phones has been determined to be confidential in some recent court challenges to public records laws.

"It's one of those Catch-22 situations," Erickson said. "Do you require everything to be open and then penalize constituents who are requesting confidentiality, or close everything and have ethical problems arise later on?"

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