By Benjamin Marrison, The Columbus Dispatch This has been a banner week for public records in Ohio.
On Monday, the New York attorney general’s office announced that it had reached an agreement with the Big Three credit-reporting agencies to improve the accuracy of their reports, quickly correct errors and take steps to protect consumers from lingering, erroneous medical debt. This is a big deal.
On Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court announced sweeping, unprecedented changes to the broken guardianship system in the Buckeye State, creating uniform standards for those who manage the affairs of those unable to care for themselves. This is a big deal, too.
Investigations by The Dispatch — “Credit Scars” and “Unguarded” — led to both of these major reforms.
At the root of our investigations were public records — documents that lay bare what really happened in the credit industry and to the defenseless wards of court-appointed guardians.
Never forget the value of public records: Those pieces of paper, emails and other documents that governmental entities keep are a type of DNA that explain how and why things happen in government, in our schools, in our courts and elsewhere.
Without our ability to access court documents, we would not have been able to gather the information necessary to publish our five-day series in May that exposed troublesome flaws in the state’s guardianship system. The system is so unregulated that it allowed guardians to avoid ever having to visit those for whom they were responsible, and it enabled some guardians, including some attorneys, to fleece wards through questionable billing.
One of them has been indicted on multiple felony charges.
Public records allowed us to report that some 65,000 of Ohio’s most vulnerable residents are trapped in a system that allowed unscrupulous guardians to rob them of their money, dignity and freedom. The series, available at Dispatch.com/unguarded, revealed that anyone can be a guardian — even a felon — and make decisions about a person’s medical care and finances.
Public records were the building blocks of our reporting that exposed giant holes in the system — one that a committee appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court spent more than eight years studying before finally acting last week. I’m confident that our investigation sparked this long-delayed action.
Also because of the series, the General Assembly is considering legislation to better regulate guardians and protect wards.
The agreement between New York and the giant credit-reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — stems from our 2012 series, which illuminated the plight of thousands of Americans who, through no fault of their own, have been harmed by flawed reports.
We reviewed nearly 30,000 complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general in 24 states.
Our reporters made startling discoveries: an 18-year-old who never owned a credit card was in the system as having racked up $150,000 in credit-card and other debt; a woman’s credit information was somehow linked to that of a terrorist; a man was dead to the credit agencies, even though he was still ticking, yet unable to prove otherwise.
The series was replete with such examples. It was so thorough that it prompted Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to launch an investigation with 30 other attorneys general into how the Big Three credit-reporting agencies were ignoring or mishandling consumer complaints. One result of that investigation was the New York attorney general’s agreement.
But for our ability to scour public records across the country and analyze the information, we would not have been able to reach such firm conclusions in our investigation, available online at Dispatch.com/credit.
Public records are extremely important to all of us, not just the media.
They give you access to the inner-workings of government. They can help explain why and how decisions were made. We use these records, on your behalf, to explain what’s happening and to shine a bright light on issues that need public scrutiny.
It’s why state legislators and Congress have created laws making certain records public. Unfortunately, those same lawmakers have tended in recent years to chip away at your right to know with increasing frequency.
In my view, our legislators too often cave to special interests who want to shield information from you. Or they use a mallet to address a problem that would best be addressed with a scalpel.
They forget that the information belongs to you. You pay the bills.
It’s Sunshine Week in America, the time once a year when news organizations spotlight what’s happening to our collective right to know.
The importance of public records was very obvious here this week with these two major developments. It’s worth remembering the next time someone who works for you in the legislature or Congress considers an action that would leave you in the dark.