WSB-TV, AJC ask AG to mediate open records complaint against Atlanta

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News filed a complaint Wednesday with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests at Atlanta City Hall, and requesting mediation to implement reforms for repeated violations of state law.

The complaint outlines 10 examples of alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act and “a pervasive culture of non-compliance” dating to July 2016.

The AJC and Channel 2 seek mediation through Carr’s office to create enforcement measures to ensure compliance with the law and the appointment of an independent public records officer who would be free from political meddling.

[ CLICK HERE to read the entire complaint ]

The GBI opened a criminal investigation into the city’s handling of open records requests in March following reports by the AJC and Channel 2 that experts said revealed potentially criminal behavior within the city’s communications and law departments to delay production of public records and to pass off newly manufactured documents as genuine records.

“Recent revelations illustrate that public officials have interfered with, caused delay in, or intentionally obstructed the production of public records — particularly when WSB-TV or the AJC sought public information that city officials perceived as politically embarrassing or inconvenient,” the complaint from attorney Michael Caplan said.

On Tuesday, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced steps to improve transparency within city government, including a new online portal for residents to search for city expenditures. Bottoms said the system would also allow City Hall to be more responsive to open records requests.

Bottoms also asked for resignation letters this week from more than two dozen senior city officials, all holdovers from former Mayor Kasim Reed, and two have already been accepted: Communications Director Anne Torres and Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard have left city employment. Bottoms said she would accept some of the other resignation letters, while others will be retained and some department heads might be reassigned as she builds a new leadership team.

The AJC/Channel 2 request for mediation by the attorney general, a legal remedy under the Georgia Open Records Act, is a rare step for media organizations to have to take to obtain records that should be readily available under state law. But it is not without precedent.

The AJC also pursued legal remedies with the Attorney General’s Office following persistent attempts by the city to stymie open records requests during the administration of former Mayor Bill Campbell, which at the time was under a federal corruption investigation.

The 13-page complaint also outlines efforts to hinder journalists’ attempts to obtain records as mundane as a municipal court judge’s schedule and the complete personnel file of a city department head. In some cases, the city dragged out responses for months, only to provide incomplete records, the complaint states.

The city “slow-walked” records and otherwise attempted to thwart reporting intended to provide a check on local government, said Charles Davis, the dean of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

“In an era in which cynicism about government runs rampant, the antidote to that is transparency,” Davis said. Attempts to throttle reporting, he said, shows “the system is broken.”

“Public access belongs not only to the media but the citizenry,” Davis said. “What odds would the citizen have to get information when [the city] would go to such lengths to deny information to the media?”

In March, Carr asked the GBI to investigate text messages between Jenna Garland, a former press secretary for former Mayor Reed, and Lillian Govus, a former communications staffer in the city’s watershed department. The messages showed the women coordinating a delayed release of public information requested by Channel 2.

Channel 2 requested water billing records for Reed, his brother Tracy and city council members, including city’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. The request prompted Garland to instruct Govus to “be as unhelpful as possible” and to “drag this out as long as possible” when fulfilling the request.

Garland also told Govus on March 7, 2017, to “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”

The GBI probe soon expanded to matters involving the city’s law department after an AJC investigation last month showed City Attorney Jeremy Berry provided the newspaper with documents purported to be legal invoices that weren’t actual public records.

Last year, the AJC requested legal bills the city incurred from an outside law firm to respond to the ongoing federal bribery investigation of City Hall, which so far has resulted in multiple guilty pleas.

Berry provided documents that he said showed the costs incurred by the city from law firm Baker Donelson as part of the city’s response to the pay-to-play scandal. Berry presented the documents as invoices, but front page AJC investigation showed the documents weren’t actually invoices.

The AJC found city officials concealed billing records for the bribery probe in the account of a different city legal matter and directed the creation of new documents resembling invoices in an attempt to satisfy the AJC’s records request.

Experts said the actions ranged from unethical to potentially criminal.

Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University professor of communication, who teaches communication law, said “City Hall has a history of not standing up for the public’s best interest.”

“The fact of the matter is without open records you cannot have effective government in a democracy. Period,” Lisby said.

The AJC and Channel 2 want the city to acknowledge past non-compliance, adopt new procedures and amend the city’s ethics code addressing open records compliance.

The news organizations, both of which are owned by Cox Enterprises, request that the city allocate “adequate resources” and staff to support the proposed independent records officer to meet the requirements of state law. The complaint calls for mandatory open records training for relevant city employees, monitoring of compliance and enforcement of non-compliance, if so required.

The AJC and Channel 2 also seek reimbursement of substantial legal fees in connection with open records matters during the past two years.

Lisby said he hopes Bottoms follows through on promises to improve transparency. Though he is unsure the complaint ultimately will achieve all its goals, Lisby said a crack down by Carr would echo throughout the state.

“It would be a loud message, rather than whisper,” he said.

This article was written by J. Scott Trubey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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