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Inmates case tests limits of Wash. public records law; prosecutor calls requests harassment
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    SEATTLE — An arsonist imprisoned for firebombing the cars of two lawyers is using his remaining 19 years behind bars to dig up information on the judges, lawyers and corrections officers who helped put him there.
    But Allan Parmelee’s hundreds of requests under the state’s Public Records Act have become so numerous, and so creepy, that a prosecutor has taken the extraordinary step of asking a judge not only to let his office ignore Parmelee’s pending requests, but to bar him from filing any more.
    Superior Court Judge Glenna Hall heard arguments Tuesday in the case, which tests the limits of the disclosure law. The judge gave Parmelee two weeks to submit additional written arguments and said she would rule after that.
    ‘‘I am a proponent of open government, and I am very familiar with the Public Records Act and its underlying philosophy,’’ King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg wrote in a declaration. ‘‘I do not bring this petition lightly. However ... Allan Parmelee has a long history of using the Public Records Act to try and intimidate and harass my deputies and other criminal justice system employees.’’
    In 2004, Parmelee was convicted at his second trial of first-degree arson in the firebombing of one vehicle belonging to his ex-wife’s divorce lawyer and another belonging to a lawyer who represented his roommate’s ex-girlfriend. His first trial ended in a mistrial because he was found to have personal information about the jurors.
    While in prison, he has sought records — including addresses, photos, pay, schedules, professional histories and birth dates — of thousands of Washington State Patrol troopers and state Department of Corrections staff, Satterberg wrote in court papers.
    Several requests since October seek information about everyone in Satterberg’s office, and, in particular, photos and personnel records of three deputy prosecutors who handled his cases. He’s also seeking video or other electronic images of two Superior Court judges — including the one who sentenced him to 24 years — and two court commissioners.
    In addition, he has asked the state attorney general’s office for records including ‘‘working hours, schedules ... (and) photographs in color’’ of eight current and former assistant attorneys general. In a phone conversation, Parmelee told one, Brian Maxsey, he might send an associate to his house; another, Sara Olson, received a letter from Parmelee that referenced the firebombings and said she was acting ‘‘so unprofessionally (as) to invite some similar response.’’
    The state has won previous orders against disclosing specific information to Parmelee, such as photographs of corrections staff, but for an agency to seek to bar someone from exercising his rights under the Public Records Act is ‘‘extraordinary,’’ said Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle open-government lawyer.
    Much personal information is exempt from disclosure under the law, but agencies can’t decide to release public information to one person and not another, she said. Furthermore, there’s no limit on how many requests someone can file.
    But the state can prosecute Parmelee if he is using the information to harass or stalk people from prison, Earl-Hubbard said.
    ‘‘The reality is, Parmelee won’t get those (exempt) records,’’ she said. ‘‘Why stop him from having the right to ask?’’
    In one case, Parmelee won more than $19,000 in fees from the Department of Corrections because it delayed providing him with certain records, said Michael Kahrs, a lawyer who once represented him. Parmelee has not seen the money because the state has taken steps to have it directed toward his criminal fines.
    In Washington, an agency or public employee may seek a court order blocking the release of certain information if that disclosure — though otherwise allowed under the law — is not in the public interest.
    Several states allow agencies to require payment in advance for ‘‘burdensome requests’’ that take many hours to fulfill, said Pam Greenberg of the Denver office of the National Conference of State Legislatures. She said she was not aware of any that make provisions for blocking requests deemed harassing.
    Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the Missouri School of Journalism, said it is rare for someone to file requests as a way to harass public officials, calling it ‘‘the rarest of exceptions to the general rule, which is that people don’t abuse the law.’’
    Several assistant attorneys general whose records are being sought said they would like to see their office seek an injunction. Maxsey, who now works in New York, said the law does not appear to contemplate court orders barring people from filing public records requests in the future, but on the other hand, Parmelee ‘‘is a dangerous guy.’’
    ‘‘He is motivated by bad faith in seeking these documents,’’ Maxsey said. ‘‘He’s doing it to harass me and harass everybody else.’’

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