Iron Range newspaper continues legal fight with Johnson Controls on records access
In a continuing David versus Goliath battle, Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls will fight a legal challenge filed by a small Iron Range newspaper seeking records the company has from its work helping to build nearly $80 million worth of new school...
In a continuing David versus Goliath battle, Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls will fight a legal challenge filed by a small Iron Range newspaper seeking records the company has from its work helping to build nearly $80 million worth of new school facilities.
The Ely Timberjay requested records pertaining to Johnson Control's work for the St. Louis County school district. Johnson Controls refused to release the information, but a state board charged with settling disputes over public information sided with the Timberjay in May.
Johnson Controls, which claims about 142,000 employees worldwide and recorded $34.3 billion in sales in 2010, argued that because it was a private company, the records should be considered confidential trade information. But the state board ruled the records should be released because the work was done for a public entity and was not confidential information.
But Johnson Controls ignored the ruling and didn't provide the data to the newspaper, which has a circulation of about 3,500. In response, the paper filed a complaint with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings, which has the ability to order Johnson Controls to turn over the records.
An administrative law judge initially sided with Johnson Controls and threw out the lawsuit. But on Oct. 4, the chief administrative law judge, Raymond Krause, reversed the decision, saying the other judge made a "clear material error."
On Oct. 14, Krause rejected an appeal by Johnson Controls, clearing the way for a hearing to be held on the issue.
Timberjay publisher and editor Marshall Helmberger said he fears Johnson Controls' legal strategy is to spend thousands in legal fees and drag out the case to run up huge costs for the newspaper.
"Our attorney thinks they'll spend at least $100,000 fighting this request," Helmberger said. "Part of doing that is to try to get us to huge amounts as well."
Johnson Controls, which has had contracts to manage the long-range facilities plan for the Duluth school district, has hired former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, who served as lead counsel for Sen. Al Franken during his recount contest in 2008-09.
Lillehaug referred questions on the suit back to Johnson Controls.
Asked why it is fighting to keep the requested information private, the company responded: "Johnson Controls wishes to protect its subcontractor's confidential and proprietary information. The Data Practices Act does not allow requests such as this one to a business. Even if it did, the subcontract at issue contains confidential information which is protected by the Data Practices Act."
Johnson Controls also said it, not the St. Louis County school district, is paying to fight the lawsuit.
Helmberger said the paper is seeking records related to operational expenses for the facilities and a copy of the architectural contracts on the construction projects.
"It is important that we understand these projects in its entirety, and you can't do that without seeing the contracts," Helmberger said.
Helmberger said he worries that Johnson Controls' fight will set a precedent for other private contractors to resist providing records when they do work for taxpayer-funded entities.
"It's clear that Johnson Controls doesn't want to abide by the law," he said. "They're using the courts to circumvent the law and run up big legal bills for anybody trying to seek public information."