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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A Franklin Circuit Court judge has ruled that Kentucky State Police "willfully withheld" public records from WDRB News and ordered the agency to pay the station $11,500 of taxpayer money in attorneys' fees and penalties.

The order follows Judge Thomas Wingate's June 24 ruling in which he said he could not "fathom" how the law enforcement agency justified its decision not to release internal investigations of troopers.

State police have appealed that ruling but have turned the records over to the judge. The agency can also appeal the fees and penalties order.

A spokesman for KSP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Kentucky, there can be punishments for failing to follow the open records law, including a $25 fine for each day records are improperly withheld as well as court costs and attorney fees, if the judge finds the records were willfully concealed.

In his ruling this week, Wingate said the records WDRB requested were used by Commissioner Rick Sanders in internal investigations that the department admits are closed.

The agency "willfully withheld the requested records" and was ordered to pay about $9,500 in attorneys' fees and $25 a day for the withheld records from the date of the initial request in January, according to the ruling.

"Kentuckians should not have to spend thousands of dollars waging a legal battle to force our public servants do their jobs," said Barry Fulmer, WDRB media vice president and news director.

"We're pleased that the judge recognized there should be consequences when state agencies willfully withhold public information in violation of the law. Kentucky taxpayers paid for these investigations of police officers and, as the judge ruled, the public has a right to see them."

State police have for years refused to turn over internal investigations of troopers to the media and citizens, despite numerous rulings by the Kentucky Attorney General's office that the records should be made public.

The agency has argued the investigations are for "administrative purposes only" and statements from troopers are "preliminary in nature." In addition, police have said troopers are told their interviews will not be made public.

Jon Fleischaker, who represents WDRB, said Friday he was thrilled with the ruling and noted that state police have "a long history of not wanting anybody looking over their shoulder."

In April, the Kentucky Attorney General's office ruled the department had violated the state public records law by refusing to turn over five investigative files and one internal affairs investigation, including probes into troopers who kicked and struck a handcuffed Harlan County man during a 2016 arrest.

KSP filed a lawsuit against WDRB on May 9, calling the attorney general's ruling "erroneous" and asked Wingate to delay turning over the records until a similar case has been decided by the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Cody Weber, a state police attorney who filed the lawsuit against WDRB, has declined to comment about the case.

In a related case, state police filed a lawsuit in 2016 against a citizen, Lawrence Trageser, after the attorney general sided with Trageser and ruled that investigation files must be released. Wingate affirmed the ruling in May 2017, but state police appealed. The case is pending.

Lawson has said that filing a lawsuit against WDRB is, by law, the only way to appeal the attorney general's ruling that the station was entitled to the records. And until the appeals court rules in a similar pending case, he said "KSP will continue to follow its longstanding interpretation of the Open Records Act."

It is unclear when the Kentucky Appeals Court will hear the case.

At issue in one set of records sought by WDRB is an August 2016 incident involving Lewis Lyttle of Harlan County. State police initially said Lyttle did not follow orders, became combative and assaulted officers as they tried to arrest him outside a hospital.

But cellphone videos and more than a dozen sworn statements from eyewitnesses painted a different picture, and were the focus of a wrongful arrest and assault lawsuit against police.

State police eventually paid the man $130,000 and an internal investigation concluded that one of the officers used excessive force.

Sgt. Rob Farley was suspended 120 days and demoted from sergeant to trooper. None of the other officers were punished.

On Jan. 15, 2019, WDRB asked for the internal investigations and responses from all of the troopers involved, along with documents in other use-of-force cases.

The Kentucky open records law, as in most states, guarantees that police records are open to citizens unless a specific exemption allows the department to deny access. This includes 911 calls, arrest records, accident reports, mug shots, confessions and other evidence.

Despite the department's mandate of enforcing laws enacted by the state, state police have violated Kentucky’s Open Records law more than any other state or local government agency over the last five years, WDRB News found after reviewing hundreds of records disputes adjudicated by the state attorney general's office.

And even when the attorney general finds the agency has violated the law, state police often challenge the rulings in court, in essence spending taxpayer dollars to hide public records.

By comparison, the Louisville Metro Police Department routinely provides similar records of officers involved in use-of-force incidents. 

The court cases delay the release of records for months or years and force citizens and media to spend thousands of dollars on attorneys' fees to preserve their chance to get access to the records.

Copyright 2019 WDRB News. All rights reserved. 

Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.