Georgia Gov't Employee Somehow Manages To Get Criminally Charged For Violating Public Records Laws
from the protections-for-records-requesters-no-longer-listed-as-'NIB' dept
In an event rarer than the stripping of qualified immunity from a police officer, a public official is being criminally charged for violating open records laws.
The press secretary for former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been cited for allegedly violating the Georgia Open Records Act in the first-ever criminal complaint filed in connection with the law, the state attorney general’s office announced Monday.
Jenna Garland, 34, the press secretary during Reed’s second term, is accused of ordering a subordinate in the city’s watershed department in March 2017 to delay handing over public records that contained information damaging to Reed and other city officials. The records were requested by Channel 2 Action News.
Both misdemeanor charges are potentially worth $1,000 in fines and a year in jail, but we’re probably not going to see anyone locked up for screwing the public. We’ve only seen one other case like this in the history of Techdirt, and there’s nothing indicating any of the politicians indicted for public records law violations have been jailed for breaking the law. In fact, one felt so unthreatened by the charges, she filed for re-election while still under indictment.
In this case, a pair of records requests led to the criminal charges. The first request was for water billing records, filed by journalists at Channel 2. The second request — filed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution(AJC) and Channel 2 — sought communications discussing the water billing records request. The second request was a goldmine for journalists and the impetus for criminal charges against Jenna Garland.
In March 2018, the AJC and Channel 2 published text messages Garland sent a year earlier to then-watershed spokeswoman Lillian Govus.
In the messages, Garland instructed Govus to “drag this out,” “be as unhelpful as possible” and to “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”
Garland later instructed Govus to “hold all” records until a Channel 2 producer contacted Govus for an update.
The records originally sought showed large amounts owed to the city’s water department by a number of city politicians, including a councilwoman attempting to run for mayor. Those records were finally released to Channel 2 after it threatened to sue the agency.
There may be more charges coming, based on what’s been seen in the text messages AJC obtained. Garland didn’t work alone to withhold requested documents and quite possibly was following instructions from those above her when she started telling city employees to violate open records law.
This sort of thing should be happening more frequently, but it’s difficult to convince prosecutors to go after fellow government employees. The laws themselves usually aren’t much help, snaring only the most egregious violators. Still, it does show it’s not impossible to punish government employees for violating open records laws, which should generate at least some minimal deterrent effect.