The University of Idaho must release the personnel records of Ernesto A. Bustamante, the former University of Idaho (UI) psychology professor who shot and killed graduate student Katy M. Benoit before shooting himself, per the ruling of Idaho 2nd District Judge John R. Stegner.
The ruling came Monday during a hearing between several media outlets throughout the Inland Northwest, including and UI. The outlets included the Lewiston Tribune and the Associated Press.
Idaho public records legislation protects private personnel files of all current and former employees. Stegner said there was ambiguity in the legislation, and that confidentiality of public employee personnel records ends with the death of the individual.
“If the legislature intended to have the absolute confidentiality right extend after death, they would have drafted the statute in a different way than they did,” he said. “So I think I’m called upon to resolve that ambiguity. I think that I’m going to issue an order requiring the disclosure of that information.”
Stegner said all who are paid by the state sacrifice some privacy by doing so.
Before the verdict, UI General Counsel Kent E. Nelson said the legislation applied to all former employees, even in death. He said Bustamante was simply an employee who resigned and died later.
Former means former, Nelson said, but no change in status, including in death.
Attorney Charles A. Brown, representing the Idaho Statesman, the Associated Press and other groups said when the legislation was written, it was not written to block the release of records of deceased individuals.
“Government entities should be transparent to the public, to the taxpayers, to the judges, to all of us, so we can judge for ourselves how those institutions are being handled and operated,” he said.
Attorney Douglas J. Siddoway, representing Spokane Public Radio, Inc., said he thinks the term public official can only mean a living former public official.
“That being said, I think that we’re getting a little far afield here in conjuring up meanings across possible interpretations of the statute, and I frankly think the statute is ambiguous,” Siddoway said.
Siddoway also said the argument that Bustamante was a former employee as according to the legislation does not apply because he is deceased.
“We don’t call them former, we call them dead,” he said.
Neither parties will file appeals, and Stegner requested both waive their right to do so.