West Virginia Record

Friday, November 15, 2019

Non-profit law firm sues WVU over denial of China Energy deal documents


By Kyla Asbury | Jul 9, 2018


MORGANTOWN — A non-profit law firm has sued West Virginia University for refusing a public records request for documents related to the China Energy deal.

Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed the lawsuit in Monongalia Circuit Court.

AMA submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to WVU on Nov. 28. The firm requested copies of any memoranda of understanding between the state and China Energy between January and November 2017. The firm also sought a list of projects between the state and China Energy, and any other documents related to the China Energy deal.

The university's FOIA officer refused the request on Dec. 5, stating that the firm should request the documents from the West Virginia Department of Commerce instead, according to the suit.

AMA claims that the university's denial of the FOIA request was unlawful.

"The fact that another public entity may also possess the requested record — and may, even, exercise greater control over that record — is immaterial," the complaint states.

The FOIA officer noted that the agreement between China Energy and the state contained "proprietary trade secrets and/or information related to economic development" and was exempt from being requested under public record laws, the suit claims.

The suit alleges the university also denied the request for being too broad, noting the documents consisted of approximately 15,000 e-mails.

AMA claims WVU invoked the exception to FOIA hypothetically and failed to provide proof of "what the actual burden of producing the responsive documents would be."

The lawsuit seeks a court order to produce the documents and award attorney fees.

Evan D. Johns represents the law firm. Johns declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. 

Monongalia Circuit Court case number: 18-C-267

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