Judge to rule within weeks on release of bridge data

A Hennepin County judge promised Thursday to rule by early December on how much data gathered after the Interstate 35 bridge collapse the state must make public and how quickly.

Attorneys for victims of the collapse are suing the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the release of pictures, reports and other materials related to the deadly Aug. 1 collapse as well as access to a secure site where some wreckage is being stored.

After a 30-minute hearing, District Judge Herbert Lefler said he'd make his decision by Dec. 3.

Attorney Richard Nygaard argued that MnDOT is restricting information under a "blanket of secrecy" that's inconsistent with Minnesota records laws. Nygaard, with the Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben law firm, represents 20 victims preparing for a future lawsuit.

"You cannot have a blanket exemption for the collection of data," he said. "There's a presumption in the statute that it's all public data. The burden is not on me to prove that it's public data. The burden is on (the state) to show it's not public data."

Minnesota law presumes all data is public unless a government entity can cite an legal exception to keep it private. Nygaard said the sweeping classification in this case doesn't meet that test.

MnDOT is following federal regulations by clamping down on data and bridge components being analyzed by the National Transportation Safety Board and a state-hired consultant, said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Kohnstamm

Only the NTSB's lead investigator has the authority to release the materials, he said.

"Their beef is with the NTSB. They're in the wrong court," Kohnstamm said.

But the private attorneys have complained that the state has given special treatment to an engineering team conducting a probe distinct from the NTSB investigation.

MnDOT awarded a nearly $2 million contract to Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. and given it wide access to the collapse site and related materials with the expectation that the firm will act as an expert state witness in any lawsuit that results from the accident.

Firms representing possible plaintiffs have had more limited access to components from the failed bridge. Evidence gathered by Wiss Janney has been shared with the NTSB but has otherwise been classified as private.

"How on earth could they have blanket secrecy from the NTSB when they are going to be the state's expert witness in any lawsuits against the state?" Nygaard asked Lefler, who didn't give hints about what he might rule.

Kohnstamm said the broad classification of items as confidential is justified. He said requiring investigators to sort through materials now to determine what's public would be "an administrative nightmare" that might slow the search for a cause of the collapse.

"This is all a matter of timing - even as to post-collapse data," Kohnstamm added. "Ultimately, they and their experts will have an opportunity to review it."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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