ATLANTA — The GBI has interviewed a former Atlanta police public affairs official as part of its criminal investigation of Atlanta’s open records policies from City Hall to the Atlanta Police Department.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher said a veteran Atlanta police officer testified under oath that on one occasion he was directed not to comply with the open records law.
The GBI opened a criminal investigation of possible open records violations after Channel 2 Action News reported that then-Mayor Kasim Reed's press secretary tried to obstruct the release of public records.
Now, a police sergeant said an unnamed city official told him not to release information related to a whistleblower case.
Atlanta police Sgt. Warren Pickard testifies at a hearing for former APD employee Francine Williams who was fired for destroying what she said was a duplicate open records request.
“Have you ever been instructed not to fulfill an open records request?” Pickard was asked during the hearing.
“I've been instructed to not let information leave the office,” Pickard said.
Pickard's testimony raises questions about whether the police department has the same problems as Reed's communications office, which is the subject of a GBI criminal investigation.
Channel 2 Action News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution also filed a mediation request with the state attorney general accusing the city of a culture of political interference with open records requests.
“There was an order given to me as to what information should leave the office and what information shouldn't,” Pickard said.
Channel 2 has confirmed that the person seeking information referenced by the sergeant was Tracy Woodard, a former police budget analyst.
“I felt like I was doing my job bringing this to their attention,” Woodard said.
She contends she was fired because she raised questions about the use of federal funds to purchase expensive SUVs for Reed and his family -- a charge the city denies.
“It was some information requested by one of the employees who had been terminated, and I got an email from -- I’m not sure who the email came from. It just said, Pickard, the information is not to leave this office,” Pickard said.
Defense attorney Ash Joshi called Pickard as a witness for Williams.
“I find disturbing that there was a directive or memo or some form to a sergeant not to fulfill an open records request which is, in effect, as you said, a directive to violate the law,” Joshi said.
“Did your client hear other instances when people were told or was she told don't obey the law?” Belcher asked Joshi.
“I believe there was a list of people, a list of people requesting open records in which they were told not to fulfill those requests,” Joshi said.
Joshi said he developed information about the purported open records blacklist while investigating Williams' case, but he says he has not actually seen a list.
Belcher asked if the GBI is involved.
“My understanding is that my client has been interviewed by the GBI and has provided the information that I’ve detailed to you,” Joshi said.
APD sent a statement saying if Pickard “was asked to suppress public documents, he had an obligation to bring the matter to the attention of the chief of police; and to ensure that the law was followed.”
The statement said APD has opened an internal investigation that includes whether Pickard handled the matter properly.
Pickard declined comment on Thursday before the investigation was announced.
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