Judge Roderick Stout today ordered a local travel agency not to respond to a Lagniappe-issued subpoena for records pertaining to a federally funded trip to Denver organized by the Mobile Police Department’s Explorer program, pending his further review of the case — an ongoing effort by the newspaper to gain access to public records related to multiple trips.
Lagniappe was forced to ask the court for summary judgment after Police Chief Micheal Williams signed an affidavit stating he had provided all the related records he knew to exist and after Stout held the case over last month to allow Lagniappe further discovery.
City attorney Ashton Hill sought to dismiss the case, arguing Williams had satisfied Lagniappe’s initial request for records and that the newspaper’s subpoena of a third party was illegal. Ginger Poynter, an attorney representing Lagniappe, argued the city’s objection to the newspaper’s subpoena of Springdale Travel came four days after the statutory deadline. Poynter also attempted to have Lagniappe co-publisher Rob Holbert testify to additional new Explorers’ records he received from confidential police sources July 18, but the judge did not allow it at today’s hearing.
“The fact the police department managed to lose the records doesn’t make them not public records anymore,” she argued. “The whole issue of the (third party) subpoena could have been cured if the department would have kept and maintained the records as they are required to do by law. They could also easily reconstruct the records from Springdale themselves and in their attempts to prevent us from doing so, we can only speculate about their own motives.”
Lagniappe originally filed the request for public records last November to determine the veracity of allegations the Explorers program was misspending federal grant money. According to multiple sources within the department, money intended to furnish overnight trips for disadvantaged youth was instead spent on people not affiliated with the program or family members of officers or other municipal employees. Records obtained by Lagniappe so far do show a number of officers, police employees, city employees and their children attended some trips.
After the initial request, the newspaper only received an incomplete list of attendees for a 2009 trip to Gatlinburg. But only after filing suit in April did the department provide more information on that trip, as well as partial documentation on trips in 2011 to Gatlinburg, Washington D.C. and New York.
Records supplied by MPD have been piecemeal and inconsistent, especially in terms of the names of those who attended. The department still maintains it has no names of 42 people flown to Denver in 2008 for a national Explorers convention. Also still missing are complete lists of those who attended 2008, 2009 and 2010 ski trips to Gatlinburg, Tenn. A grid supplied purporting to show attendees for the 2011 trips to Gatlinburg and a $28,000 trip to Washington/New York City is arranged in such a way that it is impossible to know who went without an MPD explanation.
The Police Explorers program is designed to teach underprivileged children about police work and the trips were paid primarily through federal Department of Justice grants or grants which came through the Mobile Housing Board, according to records. Explorer posts are commonly linked with public housing projects in the city.
A rundown of Explorer trips, provided anonymously, shows Gatlinburg trips from 2009 -2011 ran a total of $50,382 – an average of $16,794 apiece. A total for 2008’s trips to Denver and Gatlinburg was not provided, although previously provided records show the Denver plane tickets alone were $17,000 and a 2011 trip to Washington/New York was $28,000.
In May, Chief Williams signed an affidavit stating, “in response to the records received from the plaintiff, I had a thorough search conducted of all records known to be then available to the city of Mobile Police Department (“MPD”). MPD produced copies of all of those records to the plaintiff after having redacted the names of the individuals involved who were minors at the time that they participated in the trips referenced in the produced documents… After having conducted a thorough search of all known records, no other records have been identified which are responsive to the plaintiff’s request for records or compliant and none remain to be produced.”
However, on July 18, a confidential source within the department provided Lagniappe with previously-unreleased records detailing expenses from trips to Gatlinburg in both 2011 and 2010 and confirming some of the attendees from the 2011 trip including juveniles’ names the department initially refused to disclose. These records include a 2011 letter addressed to Williams from Capt. Carla Longmire, who at that point commanded the department’s Community Services Section. Information regarding the 2010 trip was addressed to then interim Chief Lester Hargrove from Sergeant Elsie Boykin, who oversaw the DOJ’s Weed and Seed program.
Lending to the veracity of the new documents’ authenticity are the names of juveniles participating in the 2011 Gatlinburg trip. A cross-reference of those names with other documents provided by MPD shows the same names, which have not been publicly released. Newly provided financial documents also follow the same style as those previously released by MPD and contain numbers and addresses of places the Explorers stayed during the trips.
Lagniappe’s source said the documents are still on computers at MPD, even though Williams’ sworn affidavit said the department had turned over all documents it had.
In issuing his temporary order and holding the case over until July 30, Judge Stout seemed to wrestle with his ability to compel a public records request beyond its initial scope. He suggested that by giving Lagniappe the opportunity to file a subpoena against a third party, private entity, he “opened a can of worms,” but said the newspaper may be entitled to some other form of relief.
“We can spend a lot of time dealing with nuances of the rules, but it avoids the substantive issues of whether you can have discovery against a third party,” Stout said, noting that Springdale may file their own objection to the subpoena.
In May, Springdale Travel President Bob Bender told Lagniappe his company would not release any information to a non-customer without a subpoena, but if the police department asked, it is likely a list of attendees could be assembled. Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Hill told Holbert it was a move the department was unlikely to make, considering what Williams had determined to be the publication’s potentially damaging motives.
“The only thing [Williams] didn’t want to give you is the names of the children,” Hill told Holbert. “If Chief Williams’ affidavit doesn’t appear to be valid, the appropriate thing to do is write about it. Any objection (by subpoenaing a third-party) is using an illegal procedure. If they don’t have it, they don’t have it and they were very interested in finding the records until you pushed too far.”
Holbert countered that Williams and the department had flatly refused to provide the public records despite numerous requests and continued withholding both adult and juvenile attendee’s names until Lagniappe took the matter to court. Even after that, the city and MPD have not been helpful in the matter, Holbert said.
“This effort to block our subpoena is yet another demonstration of MPD’s and the city’s desire to keep the public from seeing who attended these trips. The fact that new documents have come to us indicates very strongly that Chief Williams’ affidavit to the court was untrue and simply an effort to whitewash this situation,” Holbert said.
Poynter said the newspaper would await Stout’s decision before deciding whether to submit the recently leaked documents into evidence. The fact that the city was four days late to object to the newspaper’s subpoena of Springdale Travel may also help the case, she added.
“Motive is irrelevant,” she said. “They are obligated to maintain the records and we are entitled to any records they produced. The law doesn’t say you can only help nice guys with good motives.”
Rob Holbert contributed to this article.