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Sunshine law charges against Reed official send a message, Ga. AG says

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr says charges against a former Kasim Reed official for violating the open records act will send a strong message to public officials across the state. DAVID BARNES / AJC
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr says charges against a former Kasim Reed official for violating the open records act will send a strong message to public officials across the state. DAVID BARNES / AJC

‘The law has to mean something,’ Chris Carr says.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said he thinks the charges for open records violations filed earlier this week against former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's press secretary will send a message around the state that compliance with the state's sunshine laws has to be taken seriously.

Making his first public comments since charges were filed Monday against former city spokeswoman Jenna Garland, Carr said his office takes its enforcement responsibilities seriously — but that he would rather government officials reach out to his office for training that will help them avoid violations of the law in the first place.

“The law has to mean something,” Carr said Thursday in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. “We have an open records and open meetings law for a reason. It is an important part of what we are as a government and how we govern ourselves. If there is a situation where we have to do this again, absolutely I will do it again. But I would rather work with individuals … to make sure they understand what the law is.”

Georgia’s open government laws are meant to ensure public officials remain accountable to citizens. State law requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three business days, and provide records as soon as they are available.

Carr's office ordered a first-of-its-kind criminal investigation of the Reed administration after AJC and Channel 2 reported on text messages between Garland and a watershed communications officer, in which Garland instructed her subordinate to delay release of water billing records that would prove embarrassing to Reed and some members of the City Council.

The billing documents were only turned over after attorneys for Channel 2 threatened to sue. The media organizations were provided the text messages, which were sent on private cell phones, by the watershed spokeswoman last year after she left city employment.

Carr’s office filed a two-count charging document against Garland that quotes from those text messages. Both counts are misdemeanors carrying fines up to $1,000 each and a year in jail.

The first count relates to Garland telling the watershed official to "drag this out as long as possible" and "provide the information in the most confusing format available." The second count relates to Garland instructing the official to "hold all" responsive documents until the reporter asked for an update.

Garland’s attorney told the AJC earlier this week that Garland “acted in good faith at all times and did not violate any statutes.”

Carr declined to comment when asked about two other apparent sunshine law violations that became part of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe of the issue.

In one instance, Reed's communications director Anne Torres improperly sought to delay release of an employment contract for a newly hired cabinet official. In the other, former City Attorney Jeremy Berry responded to an AJC request for legal invoices with documents his office had created to mimic invoices but that were not authentic legal bills.

“We think it will send a message,” Carr said of the charges against Garland.

Our reporting

The AJC and Channel 2 Action News broke the story of how Mayor Kasim Reed’s former press secretary instructed another official to delay fulfilling a public records request in March 2018. The story prompted a criminal probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and led to charges against the press secretary early this week.