In a case with broad implications for government transparency, a Fulton County jury on Thursday convicted a former Atlanta official of deliberately frustrating requests for public records.
The verdict brought relatively light punishment for former Kasim Reed aide Jenna Garland — fines of $1,500 total for the two misdemeanor counts and no probation or jail time, but the case sends a signal to government officials across Georgia that they can be held criminally liable for blocking access to the people’s records.
“It’s important because the people of our state must have access to their documents and their government,” said Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office tried the case.
The state argued Garland tried to save Reed and other top officials from political embarrassment in early 2017 and that’s why she involved herself in requests by Channel 2 Action News for water billing records for Reed’s brother, Tracy, and council members.
Garland messaged a watershed official, Lillian Govus, on the day in March 2017 that Channel 2 made a new request for billing records connected to Tracy Reed, who owed thousands on his water bill. Garland told Govus to “drag this out as long as possible,” and “provide information in the most confusing format available.”
Garland later instructed Govus to “hold all” records until Channel 2 producer Terah Boyd contacted Govus for an update on council billing records she requested, even though the records were ready to be released.
Channel 2 was forced to hire an attorney who threatened legal action before the city released the council billing records.
It’s rare for a public official — in Georgia or elsewhere — to face criminal charges for obstructing the public’s right to know.
Open records statutes across the nation are generally weak, often aren’t well-enforced and have come under assault by lawmakers and special interest groups. Few states have criminal penalties for violating open government laws.
Garland was the first person charged under Georgia’s criminal statute, added in 2012.
The Georgia Open Records Act requires public agencies to respond to records requests within three business days and provide records as soon as they are available. A criminal statute was added in 2012 that makes it a misdemeanor “to knowingly and willingly frustrat(e) or attempting to frustrate the access to records by intentionally making records difficult to obtain or review.”
“The concept of open government requires constant vigilance,” said Greg Lisby, a Georgia State University communication professor and lawyer who wrote a book on the state’s records law. “It should never be taken for granted. And it should never be trusted to bureaucratic minions who don’t believe in it, who don’t understand it, or who try to ignore its requirements by treating them like a joke.”
State: texts weren’t ‘venting’
Govus said she feared for her job if she didn’t follow Garland’s instructions. Govus was fired within days of receiving Channel 2’s legal demand letter, and she provided the text messages to Boyd to show she wasn’t the person who held up production of the records.
After Govus moved to Oregon for another job, she allowed the texts to be used by Channel 2 and the AJC to report on open records abuses at City Hall.
Carr’s office ordered the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to open a criminal probe in March 2018 after the AJC and Channel 2 published the texts. Subsequent reporting by the AJC and Channel 2 showed the city’s communications and law departments took other steps to hinder release of public documents.
But the state only brought misdemeanor charges against Garland in February of this year.
Garland did not testify at trial. She told two GBI agents in an interview played for the jury she was frustrated over negative news coverage and growing tensions with the media, and her texts with Govus amounted to “venting.”
She denied that her texts were instructions to Govus and said that some were made in jest.
Scott Grubman, the lead attorney for Garland, said the state didn’t prove unlawful intent. Grubman acknowledged Garland’s frustration at critical media coverage and the crush of media inquiries and records requests to her department, alluding to the federal corruption inquiry and the I-85 bridge collapse.
The council records he said were released in 19 business days, something a senior city attorney testified wasn’t unusual given the chaos at City Hall.
Grubman said Garland had no authority to release the council’s records because she was told the law department was still reviewing whether to release the council records. The same senior city attorney, however, testified there was no legal debate about releasing such records.
Grubman alleged the state conducted a politically motivated investigation of former Mayor Reed. He cited GBI agents’ repeated questioning of Garland about Reed’s influence.
“The state was out to get Mayor Kasim Reed,” Grubman said. “They couldn’t get him, so they settled on his press secretary.”
Garland told GBI agents in an interview she cared for Reed. Garland grew frustrated, Senior Assistant Attorney General Blair McGowan said, when she couldn’t reason with the media any more to fend off negative coverage.
“Now she’s upset. She can’t reason with Terah Boyd,” McGowan said. “But she didn’t stop just because her usual tactics weren’t working.”
She said the texts weren’t “venting.”
“Venting isn’t telling someone to ‘drag this out as long as possible,’” McGowan said. “Venting isn’t telling someone to ‘provide information in the most confusing format available.’”
McGowan said in the time it took to produce the council records, one council member, Cleta Winslow, paid off her bill and two others paid theirs down. McGowan said Garland was the only person who acted to delay the production of records.
The state sought $1,000 in fines for each count. Grubman said his client should face no more than $500 in fines, total, saying she had suffered enough from media coverage.
“If you Google the name Jenna Garland for the rest of her life this is what is going to come up,” he said.
Grubman said Garland plans to appeal the verdict and has 30 days to file it.
Garland did not talk to reporters after sentencing. She showed no reaction to the verdict and hugged supporters before leaving the courtroom.
“She’s devastated,” Grubman said.
The attorney general said he hoped the case will encourage others to bring to light instances of open records abuses.
“If there are other instances out there and the facts take us to where they took us in this trial then we are willing to stand up again for the people of Georgia,” Carr said.
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