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.
The two citations carry light punishment if Garland is convicted. Criminal violations of the law are misdemeanors punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and a year in jail, but jail time is unlikely. Still the complaints carry symbolic weight.
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It’s rare for a public official — in Georgia or elsewhere — to face criminal consequences for obstructing the public’s right to know. The charges could serve as a jolt to cities, counties and state agencies that don’t comply with the law, experts said.
In March of last year, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr ordered the GBI to open the state’s first-ever criminal probe of open records practices at City Hall. That came after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 revealed the city’s communications and law departments under Reed acted to hinder production of public documents.
“Openness and transparency in government are vital to upholding the public trust,” Carr said in a news release. “I am confident that this action sends a clear message that the Georgia Open Records Act will be enforced.”
Georgia’s sunshine laws were written to ensure that governments remain accountable to citizens. State law requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three days and provide records as soon as they are available.
In 2012, a criminal statute was added to the law.
Jennifer Little, Garland’s attorney said, “We are surprised and disappointed by … Carr’s decision today given the facts of this case and my client’s full cooperation with the investigation.”
“While my client may have spoken out of frustration, she acted in good faith at all times and did not violate any statutes,” Little said. “We plan to look at all options moving forward.”
Reed did not respond to messages left via text and through a spokesman. In the past, Reed and others tied to his administration have denied any wrongdoing.
Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the criminal complaint “will definitely echo all over the state and perhaps in other parts of the country.”
“It sends a really clear message that ignoring the state’s open records law … comes with a heavy price,” he said.
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In March 2018, the AJC and Channel 2 published text messages Garland sent a year earlier to then-watershed spokeswoman Lillian Govus.
Channel 2 sought water billing records in March 2017 for Reed, his brother Tracy, and members of City Council.
The texts showed Garland and Govus knew the records contained damaging information for city officials, including a history of outstanding balances by then-councilwoman and mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms. Reed supported Bottoms’ candidacy. The records also revealed a disconnect notice at a property Reed owned and a $9,000 unpaid bill at property owned by Tracy Reed.
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. Those text exchanges form the bases for the two criminal citations.
The water department delayed production of the records for months, and the city only provided the records after Channel 2 hired an attorney, who drafted a letter threatening legal action.
Govus, who declined to comment for this story, provided Channel 2 and the AJC the messages after she left her job with the city.
Garland is, so far, the only individual charged in the state open records probe, though text messages obtained by the AJC show other possible violations.
A spokesman for Carr did not respond to an inquiry about the status of the investigation into other members of the Reed administration.
Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the Grady College of Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, called the charges “a prosecutorial unicorn.”
Peters said prosecutors typically don’t expend resources on open records violations, which happen frequently. That’s because the laws are often weak and “provide some cover to all but the worst violators,” Peters said.
To track the charges filed, “You’d just need your fingers and toes. That’s how rare this is,” he said.
Last April, the AJC and Channel 2 filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests and sought mediation to reform city behavior. The city under Mayor Bottoms settled the matter in September and agreed to overhaul open records practices.
The City Council last year approved the creation of a transparency officer, a cabinet-level post, that was in part birthed from mediation. It’s groundbreaking for a local government in Georgia, and a rarity nationally for a municipality, to have a dedicated officer oversee records production and public records training.
The city’s new ordinance also codifies that employees are subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination, for failure to comply with state records law, and that violations “may be referred to appropriate authorities for criminal prosecution or civil enforcement.”
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In December, Bottoms said she planned to name Kristen Denius, a veteran attorney in the city’s law department, as the new transparency officer. Denius’ appointment is expected to take place before the end of March.
Bottoms entered office in January 2018, amid a well-publicized federal corruption investigation of City Hall. In her first year, Bottoms settled the open records mediation with Carr’s office, launched an online portal for the public to track city spending and with the City Council instituted new reforms for the use of city credit cards.
“The Bottoms Administration is committed to restoring public trust between Atlanta residents and its government,” Bottoms’ office said in a statement.
Greg Lisby, a communications professor at Georgia State University and an expert on the state records law, said the charges show “somebody is finally being held accountable.”
But, Lisby said, it’s unlikely Garland acted alone.
“I cannot imagine she did this on her own without somebody, somewhere at least leaning in a certain direction that led her to the conclusion she could do this and get away with it,” he said.