Sunshine Week: New Action Needed to Get Government Contractors Out of the Shadows

As a part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government and the freedom of information, In the Public Interest is calling for increased transparency in government contracting and privatization deals.

Last year we released a report about the real world consequences of privatization on government transparency and the public’s access to contractor information, Floodlights Instead of Flashlights: Sunshine Laws out of Step with Government Contracting Leave Public and Lawmakers in the Dark. The issues addressed in the report remain relevant today and many of the proposed recommendations to improve transparency continue to apply. Many state sunshine laws don’t adequately address what happens to public information when private companies take over public services or projects. In many situations, this lack of transparency enables contractors to evade public oversight and accountability. Enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars go to private companies at all levels of government and we have a right to know exactly how that money is spent.

Public Kept in the Dark

The lack of transparency in recent privatization initiatives continues to allow government contractors to operate in the shadows, circumventing state sunshine laws

  • In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, rush attempts at privatizing the states’ lottery systems have avoided typical channels for the process that would allow for oversight by lawmakers and the public to ensure the plans are in the public’s best interest.
  • Despite public records and open meeting laws in Ohio, private organizations that receive public money have been allowed to keep their operations shrouded in secrecy.
  • Allentown, Pennsylvania’s push towards privatization of the water system is plagued by transparency issues. The city has refused to release information about potential contractors to the community, conducted business behind closed doors, and misled the public about the public costs of the possible long-term concession contract.


Ruling in Favor of Transparency

Demands for transparency are increasing. Recent court rulings in Minnesota, Florida, Wisconsin, and Tennessee have ruled in favor of increased transparency of government contracting. For example:

  • The Florida circuit court ruled that Aramark, the company that took control of housekeeping and maintenance services at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, must divulge information regarding the number of formerly public employees that were offered positions with the company following the privatization effort.
  • In Tennessee, the Court of Appeals ruled against the for-profit prison giant, Corrections Corporation of America, affirming that in their position as a government contractor, they must make public certain documents that they previously refused to disclose including reports and audits in which they had been found in violation of their contracts and lawsuit settlements where the company had to pay damages.


Protecting the Public’s Right-to-Know

There are also pro-active steps being taken to protect the public’s right-to-know how their money is being spent.

New York City’s online portal Checkbook NYC 2.0 provides easily accessible, clear information on the city’s spending practices with a section explicitly devoted to spending on government contracting.

State legislators are taking action:

  • Virginia recently passed a bill that requires contractors engaging in public-private partnerships for transportation services to make their proposals readily available to the public.  
  • New Mexico is pushing forward legislation that would require large government contractors to disclose their political contributions and post them on the state’s Sunshine Portal.

Lack of transparency is ultimately an issue of lack of accountability. Efforts to encourage contractor transparency help to ensure that public services answer to the stakeholders of our democracy, not corporate shareholders.

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