TV news station sues Cobb sheriff over alleged open records violation

Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren’s office has received a subpoena by the state ethics commission looking into his campaign fundraising. The ethics commission has also subpoenaed the county finance office, the bank in which Warren’s campaign holds accounts and the Cobb Youth Museum, a non-profit organization that partners on one of Warren’s largest annual fundraising events. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren’s office has received a subpoena by the state ethics commission looking into his campaign fundraising. The ethics commission has also subpoenaed the county finance office, the bank in which Warren’s campaign holds accounts and the Cobb Youth Museum, a non-profit organization that partners on one of Warren’s largest annual fundraising events. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com

An Atlanta broadcast news station has filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Neil Warren, accusing Cobb County’s top cop of violating the Open Records Act by refusing to turn over investigative files of inmates who have died in custody.

WXIA-TV, the NBC news affiliate known as 11Alive News to viewers, says Warren and the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office’s records custodian refused to produce case files concerning the deaths of three Adult Detention Center inmates. According to the lawsuit filed last week in Cobb County Superior Court, the news station contends the sheriff’s office told them that an active investigation prevents them from releasing the files.

Since 2004, 51 inmates have died at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center, the lawsuit states. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported earlier that nine of those detainees have died since December 2018. The deaths have spurred an outpouring of community concern over jail conditions and a number of deaths advocates and families say could have been prevented.

A series of town halls hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and other organizations have been held on the subject over the past year.

11Alive last month published a report documenting the last hours of Kevil Wingo, an inmate who died from a perforated ulcer in September 2019. After that report aired, the news station submitted an Open Records Request to the sheriff’s office to obtain the case files for Bradley Emory, Reginald Wilson and Stephanie McClendon.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request from the AJC for comment on the lawsuit.

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Attorney Derek Bauer, who has served as 11Alive’s outside counsel for 20 years, said the sheriff’s office has “manufactured an investigation” to claim it’s exempt from complying with the Open Records Act. The law governs which government records are to be open for public inspection.

“We were not surprised that they declined to do so," Bauer said of the sheriff’s office declining to release the records. "We were disappointed.”

According to the lawsuit, the investigation the sheriff’s office cited in its refusal is being conducted by Nathan Wade. Wade, a partner at Marietta law firm Wade, Bradley & Campbell, told the AJC that he was asked by Warren during the summer to look into complaints about the use of force, racial biases and discrimination and allegations of neglect dating back five years.

Wade represented the sheriff in March during a hearing before the Cobb County Board of Elections. The lawsuit by 11 Alive contends Wade and his firm have no experience or training in investigating jail deaths.

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Wade, who previously said he’s not charging the sheriff’s office for his investigation, told the AJC that one firm member is a former Cobb County deputy and another has provided legal assistance to indigent defendants at the jail.

“To anyone who can dare say that this firm is not qualified to do this job, I would say they probably need to be a little more thorough in their research before making such statements," he said.

Bauer on Monday petitioned Cobb County Superior Court Judge Gregory Poole for an expedited oral hearing on his lawsuit. The attorney said Warren and his team should comply with the Open Records Act so the public can see if Cobb inmates “are being housed safely and treated appropriately.”

“We can’t really know what deficiencies exist ... and the nature of those deficiencies in the administration of the jail until the records about what happened to these inmates are released to the public for evaluation," Bauer said.

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The nine detainees who have died since December 2018 are Wilson, Emory, McClendon, Jessie Myles, William Kocour, Steven Davis, Kevil Wingo, Christopher Hart and an unidentified woman whose cause of death has not been released.

Five of the men — Wilson, Myles, Kocour, Emory and Wingo — died of natural causes, autopsies concluded. Davis’s death was classified as undetermined. Hart died in November 2019 from a ruptured spleen, which occurred when he fell in his cell, according to a report released by the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office. His death was classified as accidental. McClendon, also known as Stephanie White, died from coronary artery disease.

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