Judge puts the public’s interests first

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

Ernesto Bustamante left in his wake a premeditated and violent crime.

And a voluminous virtual paper trail: an estimated 70,000 emails over the course of four years teaching psychology at the University of Idaho.

These documents may answer the most nagging questions about Bustamante, the assistant professor who left the U of I’s staff on Aug. 19, murdered Boise native and U of I graduate student Katy Benoit on Aug. 22, and turned a gun on himself on Aug. 23.

These documents may reveal what U of I administrators knew — and when they knew it:

* Did Bustamante have affairs with other U of I students, aside from Benoit? Since sexual relationships between faculty and students violate university policy, was Bustamante disciplined?

* When did the U of I know that Bustamante had threatened Benoit with a gun on numerous occasions following their breakup? And since Bustamante was still on the payroll at the time, did he face disciplinary action?

* Were U of I officials aware of Bustamante’s mental condition — his multiple personalities, including one he called a “psychopathic killer” and one he named “the beast”? Did they know that Bustamante openly discussed his mental conditions with his students?

The public deserves answers. Every student who attends the U of I, every parent contemplating sending a son or daughter to the Moscow campus, has an unyielding right to know. (In the interest of full disclosure, Editorial Page Editor Kevin Richert’s oldest son is a U of I student, and he took a class from Bustamante.)

These answers may indeed cast the U of I in a negative light. The Bustamante e-mails may raise a new and troubling set of questions about due diligence, about red flags unheeded.

The facts may be revealed, in the weeks ahead, because of a ruling in a Moscow courtroom Monday. District Judge John R. Stegner authorized the release of the e-mails. Media outlets, including the Statesman, sought their release. Significantly, so did the U of I — the entity that has the most to lose from their release.

The university says it will release the records as soon as possible. Clearly, full and prompt disclosure is in the university’s best interest.

Stegner ruled on a narrow ambiguity in the law: Does a public employee’s right to privacy live on after death? Common sense rendered this one an easy call. The public interest clearly overrides the privacy concerns of a deceased public employee.

Stegner’s broader message transcends the issue at hand. Under state sunshine laws, government records are presumed to be open. Disclosure is the default position. Said Stegner, according to the Lewiston Tribune: “The overriding purpose of the (public records law) is to foster openness in government.”

A good reminder.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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