Torpy at Large: Georgia officials excel at suppressing public info

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on the release of 1.4 million documents pertaining to the City Hall bribery case on February 9, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
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Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on the release of 1.4 million documents pertaining to the City Hall bribery case on February 9, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

An award for keeping the people in the dark

It’s a proud moment to see the state of Georgia finally get the recognition it so richly deserves.

From the rural hills up north to the gritty urban streets of Atlanta, there’s one thing politicians have in common — they don’t like your nose in their business.

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Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

And so the national organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) last week nominated two Georgians for its top dishonor — the 2017 Golden Padlock Award, which highlights the most dubious efforts across the nation to keep information from the public. (Five were nominated in all.)

To win a prestigious award, one must step up his or her game. And Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Judge Brenda Weaver, who holds court up in the mountains, did just that.

Earlier this year, with a pay-to-play scandal unfolding, Reed and his City Hall minions were growing weary of media types pestering them for records of contractors and political types being investigated by the feds.

Tired of hearing critics say he was stonewalling, Hizzoner figured, You want records, I'll give you records. So instead of digging up records that mattered, the city frantically photocopied random documents until every Office Depot in the Southeast ran out of paper.

Finally, Reed released some 1.47 million pages of records stuffed into walls of legal boxes. With a theatrical performance worthy of a Tony Award, he stood in front of just about every camera in town and with a straight face called this "transparency."

As I said back then: Needle, meet Haystack.

Judge Weaver went one better — last summer she jailed a small-town newspaper publisher and his attorney for trying to get records of checks from her public courts account.

Her story is circuitous and bizarre and started with a prosecutor and judge (another judge, not Weaver) casually throwing around a racial slur in court. Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus, tried to get a court reporter's tape of the hearing. The court reporter refused. Thomason filed suit. The court reporter countersued him for libel and demanded legal fees.

Thomason heard that Weaver used public money to pay the court reporter’s legal fees. First, the publisher tried to use the Open Records Act to come up with documentation. That didn’t work, so he got inventive and used a subpoena from the ongoing litigation to demand the records from a bank.

Next thing Thomason knows, he’s getting handcuffed, strip-searched and sleeping on a jailhouse floor.

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Judge Brenda Weaver (holding trophy) when she was still a member of the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The other JQC members — from left, Lester Tate, Jeff Davis, Robert Ingram, Richard Hyde and Judge John Allen — accepted the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s 2014 Freedom of Information Award, later to be dubbed the Irony Award. (HANDOUT)

Judge Brenda Weaver (holding trophy) when she was still a member of the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The other JQC members — from left, Lester Tate, Jeff Davis, Robert Ingram, Richard Hyde and Judge John Allen — accepted the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s 2014 Freedom of Information Award, later to be dubbed the Irony Award. (HANDOUT)
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Judge Brenda Weaver (holding trophy) when she was still a member of the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The other JQC members — from left, Lester Tate, Jeff Davis, Robert Ingram, Richard Hyde and Judge John Allen — accepted the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s 2014 Freedom of Information Award, later to be dubbed the Irony Award. (HANDOUT)

I must point out here, our friends at the University of Georgia should feel slighted at being left off the Golden Padlock list.

Last year, the Georgia Legislature sneaked in a bill near the session’s end that lets college athletic departments hide much of their information for 90 days before releasing it to the public.

Most other government agencies must turn over records in three days. The Bulldogs have 30 times more time to obfuscate!

The legislation keeps reporters waiting … and waiting … before writing about such things as the cost of facility expansion projects, NCAA violations, bond indebtedness, and even how much the Dogs pay patsy teams to come to Athens and take a beating.

Some legislators said the team’s then-new football coach, Kirby Smart, wanted the bill. But I’d wager it was the school’s higher-ups who pushed it because college bureaucrats like openness as much as legislators.

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University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart being greeted on February 23, 2016, by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, right, before briefly speaking in the Georgia Senate. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart being greeted on February 23, 2016, by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, right, before briefly speaking in the Georgia Senate. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
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University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart being greeted on February 23, 2016, by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, right, before briefly speaking in the Georgia Senate. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Legislators, I must point out, don’t like openness.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, told me that no matter how toothless and tepid Georgia's Sunshine Laws are for local governments, they are more tepid and toothless when applied to legislators.

McKoon, who is also a lawyer, recently represented four taxpayers who sued Coweta County when commissioners in executive session cut a cakey retirement deal for a deputy fire chief. The residents thought the arrangement was hinky and sued the county.

“The county took the position that private citizens cannot sue their own government under the Open Records Law,” McKoon said.

Finally, the citizens won a judge’s ruling and the county settled.

But, McKoon added, none of the public officials who took part in that got a slap on the wrist. That’s because they rarely do.

Judge Weaver took a lot of heat for her actions, asked the district attorney to drop the charges, and resigned as a member of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, the org that judges judges.

But she is still plugging away at her job while Thomason’s paper is now virtually kaput.

He said advertisers, afraid of the controversy, ran screaming from his rag. In fairness, I must say the newspaper business is brutal these days and he was competing with an established paper there.

Mayor Reed, in a statement after his nomination, was disappointed, baffled and insulted, and said he has released more records than any other administration ever.

“The idea that the Reed Administration created an illusion of transparency in an effort to block the release of documents is patently false,” Reed’s office said.

City Hall then accused the Investigative Reporters org of doing something terrible — getting something wrong!

“They incorrectly identify the address of City Hall as the reason why the name ‘Mitchell’ generated so many documents, failing to realize that the individual who pled guilty is named E.R. Mitchell,” City Hall said.

“It is stunning,” Reed’s office continued, “for this group to compare a genuine, good faith attempt to provide the public with information with the actions of a Circuit Chief Judge who used racial slurs in her official capacity and then sought to cover up her flagrant misconduct by going so far as to jail a member of the press.”

Actually, City Hall is wrongly bad-mouthing Judge Weaver, who was wrong for tossing a newspaper guy in jail but had nothing to do with a racial slur.

But if you guys want to go at it, please leave me out of this.

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