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NH AG: Information requests take 1000s of hours

Norma Love, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Public information requests take thousands of hours of attorney time that could be spent on other issues, New Hampshire Attorney General Michael Delaney said Friday.

Delaney testified at a hearing on the Department of Justice's budget request that his office spent 3,983 hours reviewing right-to-know requests in 2010 and 2011 at a cost of $362,000.

New Hampshire's law does not allow agencies to fully recoup the costs, Delaney said. He suggested making information more transparent through technology to reduce the time attorneys are spending deciding what is public and what is not.

Delaney said many of the requests his office reviews are very broad and sent by email. For example, a right-to-know request for former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte's emails meant going through each email, he said.

The state is wrapping up three days of hearings Friday on agency budget requests. Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, who is being inaugurated Jan. 3, will use the information in preparing a two-year budget to present to the Legislature in mid-February.

Delaney's department is getting about $16 million in the state tax-funded part of the current budget and is asking for almost $19 million, a 17 percent increase.

Delaney said the department had 128 positions, but must keep five attorney positions vacant to stay within the current budget appropriation. He said the department lost eight attorneys and seven support staff positions in the current budget.

While his agency has shrunk, the number of lawyers added to other agencies had grown, he said. He said decentralization of legal services isn't sound public policy.

"We have to interpret the law in the best interests of the state as a whole. Lawyers in an agency are going to approach it in the best interest of the agency, not the state as a whole," he said.

Former state Sen. Kathleen Sgambati, who is representing Hassan at the hearings, questioned where the division of duties should be. Sgambati, a former deputy health and human services commissioner, said agencies hire lawyers when the attorney general's office is unable to provide the help they need.

Delaney said it was appropriate for larger state agencies to have in-house attorneys, but his agency is hard-pressed to provide legal advice to 120 state agencies and commissions with the staff it has.

Delaney noted that his staff brought in $160 million to the state in settlements from national lawsuits, showing they are not only a cost to the state. He said if he had more staff he could bring in even more money.