The Mobile Police Department and Chief Micheal Williams have filed a motion objecting to Lagniappe subpoenaing travel records from a hotel and travel agency in the newspaper’s ongoing efforts to discover who attended federally funded trips by the Police Explorers.
An original hearing June 7 had been held over by Stout pending Lagniappe’s subpoenaing of a motel in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. and Springdale Travel regarding a 2008 trip in which 42 people flew to Denver. Williams has signed an affidavit swearing MPD has no paperwork showing who went on the trip. A subsequent hearing scheduled for June 28 before Circuit Court Judge Rick Stout was delayed due to illness.
Lagniappe had asked Stout to require MPD to simply call the hotel and travel agency and request the records, since, as the customer, those records would be readily available. Instead the judge put the burden on Lagniappe to reassemble the records for MPD via subpoena. Now Williams and the police department have even moved to block those subpoenas.
On June 24, MPD attorney Ashton Hill filed a motion objecting to any efforts by Lagniappe to obtain records from Mainstay Suites or Springdale Travel, arguing that as the two entities are not government agencies, the Alabama Open Records law does not apply to them. Hill’s motion says the law requires only the records in possession of MPD and that Williams has made a sworn statement that there are no more records, therefore Lagniappe should be blocked from attempting to get those records from a third party.
“Even if the non-parties named in Plaintiff’s subpoenas should be in possession of the information identified in said subpoenas, they would not be subject to Alabama’s Public Records Act,” the motion argues.
A new hearing date has been set for 9 a.m. July 19.
Despite Williams’ affidavit swearing there are no records showing who attended the 2008 trip to Denver or a 2009 ski trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., Lagniappe has maintained the department should either have the records or be compelled to reproduce them. MPD has also not produced a full accounting of who attended a 2008 Gatingburg trip. When Lagniappe first requested records of who went on the trips, Williams said the department would not supply the names of juveniles who attended, but also did not supply the names of adults who went. He refused to supply them until after the paper engaged an attorney and filed for summary judgment against MPD and the city for violating open records law. MPD then relented, agreeing the records were indeed public, but then only provided partial documentation, prompting the paper to move forward and sue for summary judgment.
Subsequently MPD has provided records in a piecemeal fashion, and many of those records are sloppy, scratched through and impossible to completely understand in terms of who attended. However, one chart of names supplied for 2011 trips to Gatlinburg and Washington/New York, appear to definitively back up claims by department insiders that officers brought family members on the trips, and non-officers and city employees also attended with their children.
The Police Explorers program is intended to teach underprivileged youths about police work. In Mobile, for instance, Explorers are supposed to come from various public housing developments. The records for the 2011 trips show what appears to be at least four whole police families that attended. Also, there were non-police staffers who attended, as well as Donna Mitchell and Barbara Wolfe, both of whom work in the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. OSI was responsible for overseeing federal Weed & Seed Grant money for the city, some of which was used to pay for Explorers trips.
Mitchell and Wolfe have both been very involved in Mayor Sam Jones’ political campaigns, with Mitchell actually signing checks and making purchases for the campaign and Wolfe receiving several thousand dollars in campaign funds from Jones. Mitchell’s child appears on the list of ski trip attendees for 2011. The department has not responded to requests to explain why Mitchell, other non-police and police families were on the trips.
Lagniappe has questioned the department’s record keeping in the matter and how it has been unable to determine who attended and if they were involved with the Explorers program. For instance, the department flew 42 people from New Orleans to Denver and back in 2008 at a cost of more than $17,000, yet Williams claims it has no records of who was on the plane.
In some financial records Lagniappe has received, there are parental permission slips with redacted names, as well as lists of attendees where most of the names are redacted, which would indicate that at one time, at least, MPD did collect records. Why the department also couldn’t simply attempt to put records together by asking people if they went on the trips is not clear either. The amount and quality of records kept for each of the five Explorers trips in question vary wildly in the amount of information kept, although all are poorly put together and very difficult to follow.
Tom Turley of the Alabama Department of Archives and History said state law requires agencies to maintain records and go through proper channels before destroying them, but he also said agencies can typically ignore the law because it has no teeth.
“If the Mobile Police Department has improperly or prematurely destroyed records that are still within their required retention periods, it has violated Code of Alabama Section 41-13-23, which states that ‘no county, municipal, or other local government official, shall cause any . . . record to be destroyed or otherwise disposed of without first obtaining the approval of the local government records commission.’ While violators are technically guilty of a Class A Misdemeanor (punishable by up to one year in jail), the Local Government Records Commission has no authority or ability to enforce such punishment,” Turley wrote in an email. “The only practical remedy is to file a lawsuit against the offending official or agency. Regrettably, previous efforts to strengthen Alabama’s records laws have bogged down in the legislature.”
Lagniappe attorney Ginger Poynter has argued that since MPD either lost or destroyed records they were legally bound to keep, the judge should order the department to put the list together instead of making Lagniappe go to the expense and time of subpoenaing the records. Stout’s ruling also enabled MPD to petition to block the subpoenas, and if the judge rules again in their favor, the public will effectively be shut out from seeing who the department used federal money to fly across the country or to take on ski trips. In essence, MPD will have been allowed to lose, destroy or not keep public records for tens of thousands of dollars in spending and then effectively block the public from seeing fully how it was used.
“The Mobile police department has failed to keep records of these trips or at the worst, destroyed the records. They have refused to recreate the records and with their motion objecting to the subpoenas, are trying to prevent the Lagniappe from finding out who exactly went on these trips. It begs the questions, what are they hiding?” Poynter said.
Poynter also pointed out federal whistle blower laws provide not only protection to those who provide information that leads to the recovery of misused federal dollars, but actually can offer financial rewards for doing so. She urged anyone who may have knowledge of records of the trips to provide them to her or Lagniappe.
Updated at 8:41 to correct typographical errors.