“We are shocked that any journalist would be jailed for simply asking a question,” the Society of Professional Journalists said in a statement in Atlanta Journal-Constitution
So are journalists across the country. Not only have the publisher and lawyer been charged with felonies (felonies!), but they had to post $10,000 bonds and now undergo drug testing.
Here’s the story in a nutshell
Mark Thomason is the publisher of a local newspaper, the Fannin Focus. He’s been trying to get court transcripts from a case where racial slurs were used by court officials.
Judge Roger Bradley was presiding over several cases and asked the name of the next defendant. The assistant district attorney announced next up was “(Racial slur) Ray.” Bradley, who resigned earlier this year, repeated the slur and also talked about another man whose street name started with the same slur. – Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thomason asked for the transcripts after hearing that courtroom officials (including the judge) also used the racial slur, but when he got them, it appeared not all the racial slurs had been recorded by the stenographer.
Thomason says he talked to the stenographer, who said she didn’t write down all the slurs because some were “off the record.” So the publisher had his lawyer file paperwork to get the actual recording The stenographer turned around and sued the paper after it published a story saying the court record may not have accurate.
The stenographer later dropped the case, but asked for $16,000 in legal fees.
Here’s where it gets really interesting
It turns out the legal fees had already been paid from the Judge’s operating bank account. Her attorney was asking for reimbursement. In fighting the claim, the paper’s lawyer filed subpoenas for copies of checks so he could prove the legal fees had been paid. And that’s where the charges came in.
Thomason and Stookey were indicated, arrested, and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason also was accused of make false statements in his records request.
(Brenda) Weaver (the investigating judge) suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information on the checks. – Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The judge said she was concerned Thomason would use the banking information on the checks for himself.
That seems like an odd claim to make. We file FOIA requests all the time. Often, they are returned with a whole lot of information redacted.
Couldn’t the banks have just blacked out the account numbers and personally identifiable information? That wasn’t relevant to the request.
As an aside, here’s an example of how some requests come back to journalists.
What the agency feels is confidential information or falls outside the parameters of the request is simply blacked out with an explanation of why they have done so.
It happens to Congress as well. This image was actually the answer to a request made by a House committee.
“I have absolutely no interest in further misappropriating any government monies… my sole goal was to show that legal fees were paid from a publicly funded account.” – Thomason via Atlanta Journal-Constitution
You can read the indictment here. The publisher and lawyer were arrested, booked, and formally charged with felony counts.
“To the extent these criminal charges stem from the use of the Open Records Act undermines the entire purpose of the law. The Open Records Act is the vehicle by which citizens access governmental information… Retaliation for use of the Open Records Act will inhibit every citizen from using it, and reel us back into the dark ages.” – Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation as quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The whole case is a little more complicated than that. You can read the details here.