LINCOLN — A coalition of Nebraska newspapers and broadcasters is going to court to fight a decision by state prison officials to withhold public records that identify its execution drug supplier.
Media of Nebraska Inc. filed a complaint in intervention Friday intended to compel the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to release government records associated with the supplier of lethal injection drugs. Corrections officials have ignored requests for the records from the Lincoln Journal Star, The World-Herald and the ACLU of Nebraska.
Prison officials have released such records in the past but have withheld them now for reasons they have refused to fully explain.
In Friday’s legal filing, Media of Nebraska argued that both concealing the records and failing to provide a detailed rationale for the decision to withhold the records violate the Nebraska Public Records Act.
When asked Friday whether the public has a right to know the information, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he believes the law allows the records to be withheld.
“It specifically says in there we don’t have to disclose those things,” Ricketts said.
Corrections officials notified death-row inmate Jose Sandoval on Nov. 9 that they had obtained four drugs they intend to use for Nebraska’s first execution in 20 years. After a 60-day notice period, the Attorney General’s Office can ask the Nebraska Supreme Court to issue a death warrant for Sandoval, who spearheaded a 2002 bank robbery attempt in Norfolk that left five people dead.
The complaint in intervention asks Lancaster County District Judge Jodi Nelson to order the Corrections Department to allow access to the records. It was submitted as part of a lawsuit against Corrections by the ACLU, which alleges similar violations of the open records law.
The media organization is backed by the Nebraska Press Association and the Nebraska Broadcasters Association. Media of Nebraska advocates for public access to government meetings and records in the courts and the Legislature.
While the ACLU opposes the death penalty, Media of Nebraska takes no position on capital punishment. Its member news organizations hold editorial positions on both sides of the death penalty debate, but representatives say they are unified in their support of public access to governmental records as required by state law.
“The people of Nebraska spoke loud and clear at the ballot box last year that the death penalty needed to be saved,” said Allen Beermann, a former Nebraska secretary of state who is executive director of the Nebraska Press Association. “Our only interest is to make sure any execution is done through an open, aboveboard and legal process.”
The state’s attempt to import lethal drugs from an overseas broker in 2015 was unsuccessful, and the broker refused requests for a refund of $54,400 in public funds. In addition, then-U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg said the state’s effort to import one of the drugs was illegal because it had been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.