A press secretary for former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts alleging she obstructed a request by Channel 2 Action News for public records.
Jenna Garland entered her plea via a filing and waived her initial court appearance, which had been scheduled for Thursday before Fulton State Court Judge Jane Morrison.
Garland is the first person criminally charged for allegedly violating the Georgia Open Records Act since a criminal statute was added in 2012. The charges are punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, but jail time is unlikely.
Still, the prosecution of a high-ranking Atlanta official carries symbolic weight, said Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University communications professor.
If Garland were to be convicted, Lisby said, it would signal that “things really have changed.”
Channel 2 sought water billing records in March 2017 for Reed, his brother Tracy and members of the City Council. The city delayed producing records for months and supplied them only after the television station hired a lawyer and threatened legal action.
In text messages The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 later obtained and published, Garland ordered a subordinate to “drag this out,” “be as unhelpful as possible” and “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”
Garland also instructed the subordinate to “hold all” records until a Channel 2 producer asked for an update. Those text exchanges form the basis for the two citations.
State Attorney General Chris Carr ordered a criminal investigation of the city's open records practices in the wake of the reporting. Garland is the only person so far to have been charged.
Georgia’s sunshine laws help ensure governments remain accountable to citizens. State law requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three days and to provide records as soon as they are available.
Last April, the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with Carr's office alleging "a culture of political interference" with open records requests, and they sought mediation. The city under Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms settled the matter in September and agreed to overhaul open records practices.
Reed and others tied to his administration have denied any wrongdoing. Garland’s lawyer, Jennifer Little, said in an email, “My client has maintained her innocence since the start of this investigation.”
“Ms. Garland was a hardworking public servant who acted in good faith at all times and did not violate any statutes,” Little said. “We continue to consider all options, including defending her innocence at trial.”
Esther Panitch, a criminal defense attorney and a legal analyst for Channel 2, said it could take up to a year or more for the case to go to trial, depending on the court calendar. The attorney general’s action, she said, elevates the matter from a dispute between a news outlet and a government agency to one of alleged criminal conduct.
“It’s not about the individual reporter, it’s about the public’s right to know,” she said.
The AJC and Channel 2 reported a year ago on texts by Jenna Garland, a press secretary for former Mayor Kasim Reed, that showed she ordered a subordinate to delay a Channel 2 request for water billing records. State Attorney General Chris Carr opened a criminal investigation of the city’s open records practices following the reports. In February, Carr announced citations against Garland, the first-ever criminal complaint filed for alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act.