Judge OKs release of Idaho university shooter's records

Oct 4 2011 - 2:21pm

MOSCOW, Idaho -- A District Court judge ruled Monday the University of Idaho can release the personnel records of former professor Ernesto Bustamante, who gunned down his student and former sexual partner Katy Benoit in August before killing himself.

The records should detail how the university dealt with an employee who made repeated violent threats against Benoit and had sexual relationships with several students. UI general counsel Kent Nelson said the records are voluminous -- including about 70,000 emails -- and will take several weeks to prepare for release.

"We plan to do this as quickly as we can, within our resources," Nelson said after the afternoon hearing at the Latah County Courthouse.

The UI had already released records regarding Benoit and how it handled her sexual harassment complaint against Bustamante. The federal privacy protection for Benoit's records expired upon her death, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But university attorneys were seeking guidance from the court on privacy protection for a deceased public official under Idaho law. The records were requested by the Lewiston Tribune and several other media outlets that do business in Idaho.

Second District Judge John R. Stegner said language in the law requiring the written consent of former public officials to disclose their personnel records indicated the law is ambiguous in relation to the deceased.

And with that ambiguity, Stegner said the plain intent of the law must apply.

"The overriding purpose of the (Idaho Public Records Law) is to foster openness in government," Stegner said, noting all people paid by the state sacrifice some of their privacy. "Mr. Bustamante sacrificed some of his privacy rights by becoming a public official. The issues facing the University of Idaho will be better dealt with by the public at large if the records are disclosed."

Nelson, Tribune attorney Charles Brown and Spokane Radio Inc. attorney Douglas Siddoway all told the judge they would not appeal his ruling. Spokane Radio made a separate request for Bustamante's records.

"The University of Idaho is pleased with the court's ruling today," Nelson said in a statement later on Monday. "This provides us with what we sought: a clear path forward. It has always been the university's intention to be as open and transparent as the law allows in this matter."

The records will take some time to release because the private information of other students and university employees must be removed prior to release. And Nelson said he will work with Brown and Siddoway to release only the records pertinent to the Benoit case in order to speed up the disclosure.

Nelson also said the Moscow Police Department's investigation into Benoit's murder also takes precedence over Stegner's order. The university has been providing various records, including those of Bustamante, to satisfy a search warrant filed by police in the case.

Before Stegner issued his ruling, the attorneys summarized the detailed, complicated briefs and case law they had submitted in advance of the hearing. But the judge's ruling was comparatively simple, boiling the issue down to a balance between the public's right to know how its government operates versus a former public official's right to privacy.

(c)2011 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

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