This article is from Tennessee/Lookout.
Tennessee’s chief open records advocate is questioning moves to keep documents secret in two high-profile cases roiling Tennessee.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, contends Metro Police is off the mark in claiming the writings of Covenant School shooter Audrey Hale are exempt from the Public Records Act under Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, because they remain under investigation. That information comes from a letter to Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who filed a public records request with police.
“If there ain’t no criminal proceeding or a contemplated criminal proceeding or a possible criminal proceeding, then there ain’t no exemption,” Fisher says.
That is, unless police are considering charging someone else, since Hale is dead. The police officers who shot the shooter are considered heroes, yet a month after the deadly day, police are keeping the writings under wraps, using the tired, old argument that the investigation continues, allowing rumors and conspiracy theories to run rampant.
Public pressure coupled with a lawsuit could lead to release of the information, Fisher adds. Such a move could put an end to lawmakers calling for the documents to be released in advance of a special session on gun-related laws in Tennessee.
Fisher also casts doubt on the Legislature’s refusal to release some information connected to an investigation of Rep. Scotty Campbell, who resigned last week amid a report he sexually harassed a 19-year-old intern. An ethics subcommittee determined Campbell violated the workplace discrimination and harassment policy.
But the Office of Legislative Administration is refusing to release the complaint and other documents about the Campbell case, including generic details following two requests by the Tennessee Lookout.
“Due to the confidentiality clause of our General Assembly Policy on Workplace Discrimination and Harassment, no information concerning a complaint will be released to anyone not directly involved in an investigation, a lawsuit or the implementation of corrective action,” Director Connie Ridley says.
The statement came in response to questions about who gave final approval for expenses related to relocating, housing and moving the intern who made the allegations against Campbell, where the funding came from, how much was spent, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed over the last three years in the Legislature and whether any were against other lawmakers.
Lawmakers argue that any documents related to sexual harassment complaints must be kept secret, as was the subcommittee’s investigation, to protect the identity of the victim.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who helped write the rules, says changes had to be made after a 2016 report on the inappropriate activity of former Rep. Jeremy Durham wound up identifying nearly every woman he approached. (Good gosh, has it been seven years already?)
But reporters usually go overboard in making sure they don’t give away the names of the victims. And who cares anyway?
The most important thing in this situation is whether other lawmakers have gotten away with sexual harassment and how much it cost the state to cover them up, in this case by relocating the teenage intern who alleged that Campbell grabbed her by the throat at one point. Should that be confidential? No, because it could be criminal conduct, if true.
And every penny the state spends should be public information, not hidden in some account because it’s embarrassing to the House Republican Caucus.
Transparency is bandied about ad nauseam in the Legislature when it suits lawmakers’ purposes, not when it involves critical information.
Records related to disciplinary proceedings could be closed, Fisher says. But the argument on administrative proceedings “holds less water,” she adds.
Specifically, the payout to move the intern shouldn’t be exempt from the Public Records Act.
While the director takes the stance that the media will get nothing (and like it), the matter “may be a more nuanced matter of law,” Fisher says.
The policy and the decision should be challenged.
_ Sam Stockard