What started late last year with a simple public records request for the names of individuals who attended federally funded overnight trips as part of the Mobile Police Department’s Explorers program snowballed this August into boxes of documents the city is now offering Lagniappe for review.
However, it is unclear at this time whether the estimated 6,000 – 7,000 pages of material sitting in the city’s Legal Department contains the specific information sought in the original request, as Lagniappe reporters have not had a chance to review them.
The documents were released as part of a lawsuit spawned in April after the request was not honored in violation of the state’s open records law. At a court hearing Aug. 30, Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Rick Stout gave the newspaper 14 days to review the records and indicated he would rule on the city’s motion for summary judgment Sept. 13.
The city has sought to block Lagniappe’s subpoena of records from a motel and Springdale Travel Agency as a method of determining who attended some of the trips. In 2008, for example, the Explorers program paid $17,000 for 42 people to fly from New Orleans to Denver, but the city has said there are no records of any of the names of those who attended and is unwilling to call Sprindale Travel to ask if they have records of who went.
Stout has blocked the subpoenas and indicated again Aug. 30 that he agrees with the city legal department’s contention it is not legal to subpoena a third party in an open records case. Although the city and MPD are legally required to keep complete records of such expenditures, Chief Micheal Williams has said the department does not have complete records for who went on several of the trips. Stout’s ruling effectively says the public may not use subpoena power to reproduce records lost, destroyed or not kept by a public entity.
Lagniappe requested the names of attendees after receiving information that federal money was inappropriately used to pay for municipal employees or their family members to attend the trips, rather than just the youth and employees involved with the Explorers program. During a period from 2008-2012, the program escorted participants to Denver, Gatlinburg, Washington D.C. and New York City on several occasions.
With the initial request, the newspaper only received an incomplete list of attendees for a 2009 trip to Gatlinburg. Only after filing suit 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.
In May, Williams signed an affidavit stating the MPD had conducted a “thorough” search of its records and produced “all” the records. But in July, a confidential source within the department provided Lagniappe with records Williams hadn’t, 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.
The city has argued Williams’ affidavit responded faithfully to Lagniappe’s filing asking for records from the 2008 Denver trip and the 2011 New York/Washington trip. Prior to ever going to court, Lagniappe had asked for all records pertaining to any trips from 2008-2011.
Also in May, Lagniappe subpoenaed Springdale Travel and an motel in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. for the records, but Stout put a stay on the subpoenas while allowing the city more time to produce additional records.
A new wrinkle in the case came this past week when Williams announced his retirement Aug. 28, the morning after Mayor Sam Jones was defeated in the mayoral election.
In providing the most recent documents, MPD attorney Wanda Rahman signed an affidavit insisting they contain “all MPD records so delivered to me which purport to evidence the names of all adults and juveniles who went on said trips, and some records of the expenditures incurred in connection with said trips…” An envelope full of records sent by the city last week does contain the names of attendees for the 2011 New York/Washington trip, but nothing for the 2008 Denver trip. Again, Lagniappe has not gone through the boxes at City Hall.
In the hearing Aug. 30, city attorney Ashton Hill sought to immediately dismiss the suit, but Stout said the plaintiff was entitled a 10-day grace period to review the records. After a previous hearing, Hill told Lagniappe co-Publisher Rob Holbert that the MPD questioned the motives of the paper and would have readily complied with the request had he not “pushed too far.”
Holbert maintains the MPD has never been forthcoming with the request and has never offered to simply identify the parties on the trips.
“From our standpoint, we’ll look over records to the extent we can before we see whether we’ll take it any further,” he said. “On the surface, it appears we have seen some new names, but nothing like the full disclosure we originally requested. The denial of subpoenas is troubling as well because it seems the court has provided local government with a great template for hiding records if they wish. Just don’t keep the records and there’ll be no way to reassemble them.”