A Mobile County Circuit Court judge said today his hands were tied in denying a declaratory judgment on behalf of Lagniappe against Mobile Police Chief Micheal T. Williams to comply with an ongoing public records request. Since late last year, the newspaper has sought the names of individuals who attended five trips sponsored by the police department’s Explorers program but has received only partial lists and inconsistent information.
Because the trips in question were funded by federal grants and subject to audit, Lagniappe contends it is “highly unlikely” the department has not kept more detailed records of expenses and participants. But Judge Roderick Stout held the case over until June 28, compelling the newspaper to do more to essentially prove the chief was not completely truthful on a sworn affidavit.
“The only record [the court] has is the statement of Chief Williams and he says ‘I’ve given you what I’ve got,’” Stout said. “It would appear to me that with the records I now have, the city of Mobile would be entitled to a judgment because if you ask me to give you certain documents and I say ‘here they are’ and you say ‘I highly suspect you have more’ but I say under oath in a court-filed document that’s all I’ve got, what else do you do? I can’t say the affidavit is false.”
Williams’ affidavit states that the department responded to the request by searching for and producing all the associated records and that no other records had been identified. Williams also claimed he has no reason to believe any documents relating to the trips were lost or destroyed.
Lagniappe requested information about the trips following allegations that many attendees on the trips were not affiliated with the Explorers program or the MPD, and officers and other attendees brought along their own children and family members whose trips were paid for with the grant money.
After an initial request, the newspaper only received an incomplete list of attendees for a 2009 trip to Gatlinburg. But after filing suit in April, the department provided more information on that trip, as well as documentation on trips in 2011 to Gatlinburg, Washington D.C. and New York. Yet the information does not appear to be consistent with documentation provided by other agencies. Excluded from documents provided to Lagniappe include any information about a 2008 trip to Colorado in which the department spent $17,000 on airfare for 42 participants.
Mobile Police Department attorney Ashton Hill suggested the piecemeal response to Lagniappe’s requests were due to bad timing.
“This all got complicated because we were running out of time,” he said. “The city owed a response and I contacted Mrs. Poynter (Lagniappe’s attorney). All Chief Williams wanted was that the children’s names not be published and Lagniappe was very magnanimous and agreed that they would not publish these young people’s names if there wasn’t a purpose. So they’ve been very reasonable.”
But Hill suggested the fact that both he and Poynter were called away from discovery on the case due to unforeseen circumstances may have left the impression that the department was being less than forthcoming.
”I believe I left copies of everything that I had that did not have the names redacted,” he said. “They are other trips where there are no names of anybody, but I’ve been told no names exist.”
Poynter said she had not yet received those, and Hill said he would be turning those over soon.
Stout asked Lagniappe attorney Ginger Poynter why she hadn’t filed third party subpoenas with airlines or travel agencies associated with the trips.
“I don’t deal with what I think to be true and I don’t deal with what someone says says the truth is and if it’s true to the best of your knowledge it doens’t make it a record in the case,” Stout said. “Just because someone alleges some point doesn’t make it all true and just because someone says it doesn’t make common sense that the Chief of Police wouldn’t have certain records available doesn’t make it true. It has to be what’s filed in the record in the case. I can’t grant the motion based on what I have in my hand.”
Poynter invoked a recent case in which AL.com and the Birmingham News sought records about construction contracts relating to an incident in which an electronic display at the Birmingham Airport collapsed and killed a 10-year-old boy in March. Poynter said Lagniappe had contacted the third parties but was denied informal records requests without the consent of their clients. Instead, she argued the police department should make a better “good faith effort” to obtain the records on its own. After Stout’s ruling, Poynter said she would indeed subpoena third parties.
“At this point I’ll file non-party subpoenas asking Springdale (the travel agency) and United Airlines to hand over their flight manifests and the lists of everybody that took the trips that the police department is saying they don’t have,” Poynter said. “But it seems kind of ridiculous you spend $17,000 on plane tickets for 42 people and don’t know who flew on the plane. But we’re going to find out who they are. It’s frustrating that we have to go through that because all they have to do is pick up the phone and ask for them they don’t have to go through the court system and pay fees.”
Lagniappe also filed a summary judgement asking the city to reimburse the newspaper for legal fees associated with the case.
“Apparently there are people that went on trips and for whatever reason the city doesn’t want us to know about it so you’re almost wondering why,” Poynter said, “What is it they don’t want us to know? The fact that they are not turning anything over tells me there is something to hide.”
“We are very disappointed with the way things went today,” said Lagniappe co-publisher Ashley Trice. “If you are using taxpayer money, you have to keep detailed records of how that money is being used. To say, ‘Oh sorry we just don’t have any documentation on that’ is just not an acceptable answer. At the very least, we had hoped the judge would make the department attempt to recreate the ‘lost’ records by calling the airlines, travel agency, etc., but instead he asked us to do that when they are the ones who should have been keeping the records in the first place. It is absolutely terrifying to think that this excuse could be used by any public entity to avoid handing over records to the media and citizens. We are hoping for a better outcome at our next court appearance.”
There will be another hearing on the matter before Judge Stout on June 28.