‘I cared a lot about the mayor’: jurors hear tape of ex-Reed aide

The trial continued in the first-ever criminal prosecution of an alleged violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. Jenna Garland, a former press secretary to ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is accused of ordering a subordinate to delay the release of water billing records requested by Channel 2 Action News that were politically damaging to Reed and other city elected officials. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
The trial continued in the first-ever criminal prosecution of an alleged violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. Jenna Garland, a former press secretary to ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is accused of ordering a subordinate to delay the release of water billing records requested by Channel 2 Action News that were politically damaging to Reed and other city elected officials. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

This story has been updated with information revealed at trial.

A former aide to ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told state investigators she was "venting" in early 2017 over negative news coverage and growing tensions with the media when she told a subordinate by text to "drag" out a request for records and "provide information in the most confusing format available."

On Wednesday, jurors heard former Reed press secretary Jenna Garland's voice for the first time when state prosecutors played more than 90 minutes of an interview Garland gave the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in August 2018. The interview came five months after the state opened a criminal investigation into open records abuses at City Hall.

Garland said her office was flooded with records requests from the media after federal prosecutors publicly announced the first charges in January 2017 against a contractor in the ongoing corruption probe.

Garland is charged with two misdemeanor counts of violating the state's Open Records Act.

She’s accused of ordering a subordinate, Lillian Govus, a former city watershed official, to delay release of water billing records requested by Channel 2 Action News that showed Reed’s brother, Tracy, and some City Council members were thousands of dollars behind on their water bills.

State law requires public agencies to respond to records requests from the public within three days and provide records as soon as they are available. It is a misdemeanor for an official to “to knowingly and willingly frustrat(e) or attempting to frustrate the access to records by intentionally making records difficult to obtain or review.”

On March 7 of that year, things came to a head. After a conversation with Terah Boyd, a Channel 2 producer, who had requested water billing records related to Tracy Reed, Garland said she was tired of media “fishing expeditions.” Garland sent her texts telling Govus to “drag this out.”

“On this particular day, I think I just wasn’t at my best,” she told two GBI agents. She said things were “really, really tense” since the federal probe was announced.

“You know for me, I cared a lot about the mayor,” she said. “I was really proud of everything that we had done. And this whole period was — (I) just felt like everything we worked on was at risk.”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Blair McGowan has argued Garland was trying to protect her boss and other top elected officials from politically damaging information and that’s why she instructed Govus to delay the release of public records.

Fulton County State Court Judge Jane Morrison discusses evidence with attorneys. The trial continued in the first-ever criminal prosecution of an alleged violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. Jenna Garland, a former press secretary to ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is accused of ordering a subordinate to delay the release of water billing records requested by Channel 2 Action News that were politically damaging to Reed and other city elected officials. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Fulton County State Court Judge Jane Morrison discusses evidence with attorneys. The trial continued in the first-ever criminal prosecution of an alleged violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. Jenna Garland, a former press secretary to ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is accused of ordering a subordinate to delay the release of water billing records requested by Channel 2 Action News that were politically damaging to Reed and other city elected officials. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Garland told the GBI she acted in good faith, tried to make records less confusing and denied ordering Govus to delay production of records. Garland said at other times she was joking in her texts and Govus was in on the jokes.

“So, I was just mad about this fishing expedition,” Garland said. “This amongst all of this stuff. It was just like the straw that broke the camel’s back for me a little bit.”

The GBI interview highlighted one discrepancy. On April 7, 2017, Garland told Govus to “hold all” documents related to a March request for councilmembers’ water bills until Boyd asked for an update on the records. That was because there was a controversy in the law department about whether the records could be legally released, she told agents.

But Kristen Denius, who was a senior city attorney at the time, testified before the interview was played that there was no legal controversy over release of billing records. In a March 24 email, Denius wrote that utility bills from watershed must be released in compliance with the law, subject to some redactions.

Garland’s defense, meanwhile tried to chip away Wednesday at the state’s case.

Denius, who is now the city’s chief transparency officer, said on cross-examination that the city was inundated at the time with records requests tied to the federal probe and the I-85 bridge collapse.

She said the 19 business days the city took to produce the City Councilmembers water billing records “was not all that unusual.”

Denius also testified that the law department released the City Councilmembers’ water billing records that Channel 2 sought only two days after the station sent a legal demand letter.

Lillian Govus, who was the water department’s former communications director, is cross examined by defense attorney Scott Grubman. The trial continued in the first-ever criminal prosecution of an alleged violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. Jenna Garland, a former press secretary to ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is accused of ordering a subordinate to delay the release of water billing records requested by Channel 2 Action News that were politically damaging to Reed and other city elected officials. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Lillian Govus, who was the water department’s former communications director, is cross examined by defense attorney Scott Grubman. The trial continued in the first-ever criminal prosecution of an alleged violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. Jenna Garland, a former press secretary to ex-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, is accused of ordering a subordinate to delay the release of water billing records requested by Channel 2 Action News that were politically damaging to Reed and other city elected officials. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Earlier Wednesday, the defense cross-examined Govus.

On the stand a day earlier, Govus testified she was instructed by her supervisor in watershed to wait for approval by Garland before releasing records related to Reed or City Councilmembers. Govus also said she feared for her job if she didn't comply with instructions from Garland related to open records requests.

But the defense played a recording of a GBI interview with Govus in which she was asked if it was her understanding that she had to clear the release of records with the mayor’s office.

“It was clear but never verbalized in so many words,” Govus said to a GBI agent.

Govus was fired within days of Channel 2’s demand letter.

Garland’s defense called as its first witness Kishia Powell, Atlanta’s watershed commissioner and Govus’ former boss. Powell testified Govus was fired because of poor performance as a manager, not because of the open records controversy with Channel 2.