If a speech is given by a public official, but the public cannot watch it, what about either the speech or the official was really public ?
At a riveting speech delivered on 23 January 2015 at New York Law School, just one day after the U.S. Attorney’s Office unsealed a criminal complaint against and effected the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara addressed the damage caused by political, campaign, and business corruption. Through allegory, he recounted examples of corruption and encouraged the press and the public to take a serious look at how government really worked.
With smart touches of history, satire, and insight into political power, U.S. Attorney Bharara’s speeches have made him a popular speaker. At his speech at New York Law School, he referred to the many speeches he makes, mentioning, in part, the “culture problem” of ethical misconduct, about which he speaks to “business groups and to students at business school” and “to hedge fund industry folks and heads of banks and people, who are involved in compliance.”
Some of those speeches are available online, like testimony U.S. Attorney Bharara provided before one of the few public Moreland Commission hearings, which is available online in the form of a transcript posted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office ; the address he delivered at Harvard Law School on Law School Day 2014, which was posted on YouTube ; his participation in the Milbank Tweed Forum at New York University School of Law on October 2015, which was also posted on YouTube ; and his ethics lecture to the Kentucky state legislature, which was posted online by Time Warner Cable News.
When U.S. Attorney’s speeches are reported about in their entirety, or as close to that as possible, his frankness has been able to cut through the dissonance in voters that primarily exists because the media is too conflicted with government officials or business interests to speak directly to the issue of corruption.
At the New York Law School, speech, for example, U.S. Attorney Bharara not only made clear that New York State legislators are responsible for how much New Yorkers pay in rent, but that ethical misconduct up in Albany may corrupt how much New Yorkers pay in rent. Although such an observation makes sense, such nuance is not routinely reported by journalists, who trade on access to Albany officials to file their reports, or by media outlets, which are dependent on real estate developers or other big business interests for advertising.
Despite some of U.S. Bharara’s “greatest hits” being online, not all of his speeches are available to the public to either watch online in video format or to read online in the form of a transcript.
Plus, there no complete record of U.S. Attorney Bharara’s speeches.
His speeches matter even more, because his office routinely denies press questions made about prosecutions cases, because the U.S. Attorney's Office has a policy of not commenting about active investigations. Another press policy of the U.S. Attorney's Office holds that generally only U.S. Attorney Bharara speaks to the press, even though some of the key work is done by Assistant U.S. Attorneys. For example, in the past, requests made by Progress Queens to speak with Assistant U.S. Attorneys have been denied, because Assistant U.S. Attorney's are not authorised to speak on behalf of the office. Therefore, speeches by U.S. Attorney Bharara are one of the few opportunities that the public is allowed any view into the thoughts, ideas, and information about the activities and work by one of the nation's most influential public officials. Because of his office's press policies, any information shared by U.S. Attorney Bharara about his office represents the public's only opportunity to learn about his office's work.
Given that U.S. Attorney Bharara has recently joined Twitter and has demonstrated thus far a tendency to announce some of his speaking engagements, it may be possible to cull an informal, makeshift record of his speaking engagements from those postings.
But creating a makeshift glance out of an unknown whole is not enough for a public official, particularly the most significant public official of our era, given the prevalence of corruption in business and government and U.S. Attorney Bharara’s self-styled role in prosecuting that corruption.
One speech notably denied the public a chance to view or to read was one that was ironically delivered on Friday at the Spring Convention of the New York Press Association.
Although the convention charged registration fees as low as $49, it was held in the Upstate horse-racing resort town of Saratoga Springs, making voyage and attendance accessible to a few.
Of course, a few tweets were posted by conference attendees, and a quote was dropped into a Gothamist article about the FBI investigation of the campaign finance activities of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York). Despite U.S. Attorney Bharara’s speech taking place during a press convention, a complete video of the speech was not made, or at least, thus far, none has appeared online. The irony is all the more concrete, given that U.S. Attorney Bharara spoke about the important role of the press, a topic he is fond of addressing, before an assembly of the press.
A request made by Progress Queens to an official with the New York Press Association, host of the convention at which U.S. Attorney Bharara spoke, for a recording of U.S. Attorney Bharara’s speech was not immediately answered.
When Progress Queens requested from the U.S. Attorney’s Office a recording or a transcript of U.S. Attorney Bharara’s speech, a representative from the Federal prosecutors’ office responded by essentially arguing that because the speech was delivered before reporters, that made the speech sufficiently public.
In response, Progress Queens disagreed, noting that the press doesn’t always report everything, as surely evidenced by the lack of a recording or a complete transcript made or published by any media of U.S. Attorney Bharara’s entire speech.
In reply, a representative of the U.S. Attorney’s Office complained that the Federal prosecutors’ office didn’t send a crew to Livestream or record the event and that the convention host either didn’t have the ability or didn’t see a need to broadcast a livestream of the speech.
In surreply, Progress Queens indicated that not everybody in the press can afford to travel to and pay to attend a convention in Saratoga Springs, and that even if the speech was delivered before the media, that is not enough to make a speech public, because the entirety of the text of the speech remains unknown. What is more, Progress Queens noted that the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s excuse that it didn’t have staff to broadcast a Livestream is not sufficient under the law to deny the public records about government officials, in this case, a recording or the text of U.S. Bharara’s speech, because, under Freedom of Information Act case law, a government agency cannot hide behind limitations of its own making to deny the release of public records.
Given each of all of the good that comes from the speeches delivered by U.S. Attorney Bharara and the public’s fascination with U.S. Attorney Bharara, why would his office want to deny the public a recording or a transcript of his speech before the New York Press Association, or at any event, for that matter ?
If not for his fandom, then how about his office meeting the requirements and obligations of a public official under the nation’s public records laws ?
-- Progress Queens