Lagniappe’s efforts to obtain records involving trips made under the auspices of the Mobile Police Explorers Program have led to this newspaper filing suit against MPD in Mobile County Circuit Court.
A hearing has been set for June 7 before Circuit Court Judge Roderick Stout at 9 a.m. to deal with claims made by MPD Chief Micheal Williams that his department has no record of who attended two trips made in 2008 and 2009.
Requests for information were first filed with MPD Nov. 14, 2012 and for more than six months Williams has not produced a full accounting of those who attended five trips since 2008 — one each to Colorado and Washington, D.C./New York, and three to Gatlinburg, Tenn. The records are financial in nature and therefore public according to Alabama’s Open Records Law. The Police Explorers program is designed to teach underprivileged children about police work and the trips were paid primarily through federal grants or grants which came through the Mobile Housing Board, according to records. Explorer posts are linked with public housing projects in the city.
Lagniappe requested information about the trips following allegations made by several people familiar with the inner workings of the department who claimed many attendees on the trips were not affiliated with the Police Explorers program or MPD, and also that officers and others attending brought along children and family members whose trips were paid for with grant money. In attempting to determine whether there was truth to these claims, Lagniappe asked for the financial records from the trips as well as lists of those who attended.
After much cajoling and many discussions with the department’s legal counsel, some financial records were released for the trips late last year. However, a partial list from a 2009 Gatlinburg ski trip was the only list of attendees provided. Through MPD counsel, Williams said he was refusing to release the names of any juveniles who went on any trips, citing their minority status. Lagniappe, however, has argued that MPD has regularly released the names of Explorers and even set up press events featuring them, and as the children are not accused of any criminal activity, the department should provide a complete list. MPD had also not provided the names of adults who went on four of the trips as well.
Only after Lagniappe initially filed suit in April did MPD finally agree to produce a list of attendees for the trips. However, what the newspaper received only included a more complete list for the 2009 Gatlinburg trip, and lists for a 2011 ski trip to Gatlinburg, as well as a trip later that year in which, according to financial records, 31 people spent more than $28,000 traveling to Washington, D.C. and New York. The result of the partial delivery of the requested records has been the setting of a hearing date in Circuit Court.
Even the lists for the 2011 trips provided by MPD have proven less than helpful as they are charted out by Explorer post with the attendees’ names in one column and subsequent columns delineating whether they attended the ski trip or the D.C./NYC trip, with “X” or “Y” in each column. MPD did not provide a key for this chart, which would suggest 87 people attended the Gatlinburg trip and only 20 went to D.C./NYC. Financial records for the D.C./NYC trip say 31 people attended, and budget submitted by Williams to the Housing Board stated that only 21 people would attend the 2011 Gatlinburg trip.
Another list for the D.C./NYC trip has a number of names scratched out, which also makes it difficult to determine who was on the trip.
Even so, the lists do seem to show several instances in which the names of department employees appear along with spouses, children or a child. Sam Jones’ driver Reginald Smith also appears on the list, as does the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Initiatives Director Donna Mitchell and her child. Mitchell’s co-worker in OSI, Barbara Wolfe, is also on the list.
Mitchell was responsible for handling federal Weed & Seed grant money for the city, some of which was used to provide funding for some Explorer trips. However, that grant ended some time before the 2011 trips. Both Mitchell and Wolfe have been active in Jones’ political campaigns, with Mitchell writing checks and shopping at Sam’s Club for the campaign, and Wolfe receiving regular payments from the campaign for administrative duties.
Lagniappe wrote to MPD to have the list explained, but no one from the department responded.
Williams has claimed in an affidavit provided to the court last week that the department has no further records regarding these trips.
“In response to the records received from the plaintiff, I had a thorough search conducted of all records know 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 been served with a copy of the summons and complaint in this case, I then had my lawyer produce copies of the documents which did identify the names of said minors.
“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 non remain to be produced. I also have no reason to believe that any responsive documents have been lost or destroyed,” Williams wrote.
Missing at this point is any financial information for the 2011 Gatlinburg trip and the lists of names for the 2008 Colorado trip and the 2009 Gatlinburg trip.
In the case of the 2008 Colorado trip, 42 people flew to Denver on July 21 – July 26. Airfare alone was more than $17,000 and was handled locally by Springdale Travel. Springdale Travel President Bob Bender said his company would not release any information to a non-customer without a subpoena, but that if the department asked, it is likely a list of attendees could be assembled.
“How easy it would be to find the names remains to be seen,” Bender said.
United Airlines also said through a spokesman that MPD would have to ask for the records in order for them to do a search, but with flight information and names of some who attended it would be likely they could put together a list of names.
A Jan. 16-19, 2009 trip to Gatlinburg involved 92 people, 32 hotel rooms and two buses and was partial paid for by a $2,830 grant from Weed & Seed, according to financial records from MPD. Total costs appear to have run more than $11,000, although the financial records supplied do not appear to be complete. Expenses for Explorer trips are paid through grants, MPD funds and money held by individual Explorer posts.
Despite having such a large group, Williams maintains MPD retains no records of who went, including parental permission slips.
“It is incredulous to me the Mobile Police Department can spend tens of thousands of dollars taking kids on trips around the country and not have any documentation on who those children are,” said Lagniappe attorney Ginger Poynter. “Police Chief Williams has sworn a duty to uphold the laws of the state of Alabama and here he is violating the Open Records Act Section 36-12-40 by not turning over the material and also Section 36-12-2 which requires Public Officers and servants to accurately maintain and preserve those records.”
Lagniappe has asked the court to have MPD pay the paper’s filing costs and attorney’s fees in this matter as the Alabama Attorney General’s Office says it does not enforce the state’s open records laws and leaves it up to individuals to file suit when they are broken.
Efforts to obtain comment from Williams and MPD were not returned.
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