Friday, October 18, 2019
Alas, I spoke hastily a couple Dossiers back. If you've been reading Seyma Bayram's coverage of the Hinds County Board of Supervisors and my previous Friday columns, especially this one, you know that she was shocked to discover that the county voted one month ago to destroy a long list of documents spanning 23 years. This, of course, raised our eyebrows, and the saga to view those documents and ensure that originals still exist and are available for public view have set off several weeks of frustrating back-and-forth with the board and its staffers.
At this point, we are in a very long chain of emails between us, all the supervisors and staff. Here are the highlights of where we stand so far:
- We have a 10-page list of the documents slated to be destroyed. They list materials associated with the county jail and many other pertinent topics.
- Board President Peggy Calhoun told me in a phone conversation weeks ago that all of the documents are copies with originals housed in the Hinds County Chancery Clerk's office. She guaranteed me that none of the documents would be destroyed before we had an opportunity to view them and ensure they are backed up for public view.
- Ms. Calhoun told me that Seyma could get in touch with the county administrator, Carmen Davis, to set up an immediate appointment to view the documents. Seyma has tried to set up that appointment multiple times to no avail. Board Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen is not returning Seyma's messages or e-mails.
- Since my conversation with Ms. Calhoun, the county told us that some of the documents might not be available for public view, which contradicts earlier communications.
- Hinds County Chancery Clerk Eddie Jean Carr told Seyma that she could not guarantee to us that all the documents on the list are indeed backed up in her office.
- Seyma wrote the county two days ago laying out, again, these very specific questions and asking for immediate answers and an appointment to view the documents.
- Ms. Calhoun responded that evening, copying all supervisors, that Seyma should come before the board Monday to discuss her requests—a highly unusual request. We consulted with counsel yesterday who told us: "Under the Public Records Act, a public body has (i) to provide you a public record, (ii) state an exemption as to why they aren't providing it, or (iii) state no such record exists. There is no requirement that you present anything to a board to access documents."
- I responded to her that law does not require that we come before the board to make this request, and asked for the board to immediately answer the questions and make the appointment to show us the documents.
- Ms. Calhoun wrote back this morning indicating that she is also dismayed that we have not yet been able to view the documents. She wrote: "My suggestion to request you come before the board was solely to bring to the attention of the Supervisors your repeated requests to review documents scheduled to be destroyed that you have not received. I have repeatedly informed Mrs. Davis to communicate with you via telephone calls and in writing concerning your requests. Mrs. Davis informed me you all were communicating. As a result, I assumed your request was being handled and communications understood. Yet as of this week, I received another email that you are still trying to view the records requested. That is why after a month and (a) half of JFP not receiving the requested information, I suggested you come before the board to verbally share your concerns and Hinds County explain our procedures for handling archived and destruction of records and for those two purposes only."
- I responded:"[M]y reporter will not appear before the board because that is not something required by law. The law requires making the documents available in a speedy manner and answering questions about them. We just want simple questions answered and the promised appointment to view those files immediately, and a further guarantee that no documents have or will be destroyed before we guarantee that originals are, in fact, available for public view in the Hinds County Chancery Clerk's office. We would like a return call from Ms. Davis today to Seyma to end this series of delays and schedule an appointment for us to view the documents and sort the process of confirming that they all will, in fact, still exist for public view. We consider the uncertainty around the document destruction and all the roadblocks to viewing them a grave matter of public interest. I would like it resolved without going to court over it, and we're trying very hard to make that happen, but without cooperation on the part of the Hinds County Board of Supervisors so far."
Here is our bottom line: The public is entitled to know what documents are being destroyed and if they are, in fact, backed up as Ms. Calhoun told us earlier. It is our job as capital-city/Hinds County media to ensure that sunshine stays intact. We did not know going in if there is any attempt to purposefully destroy documents or if this is, in fact, just shoddy management of public information and access. Either way, it is disturbing and a serious threat to transparency, and what has transpired in recent weeks does not give us confidence in the system or the motives.
The Board of Supervisors' contact information is available here. I suggest that you get in touch with them to help ensure that these documents are not destroyed without a thorough public inspection.
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Disorder, and Disrespect, in the Courtroom
One of the more disturbing stories we reported in the last week was Seyma's report on a Hinds County Circuit Court hearing in a police-brutality case against a Jackson police office for beating John Knight III. It was stunning to learn that an attorney for the City of Jackson—which is supposed to be "radical" on policing and criminal justice with Mayor Chokwe A Lumumba running it—actually argued that the City wasn't responsible for uniformed Officer Vincent Lampkin's actions against the teenager.
Deputy City Attorney J. Richard Davis argued that the City should get immunity for its employee's conduct because it violated the City's terms of employment, as Seyma reported. In other words, although in uniform, Davis maintained that Lampkin assaulted Knight as a citizen and not an employee.
This argument has some precedent, we've learned, but the fact that Lumumba's administration would try to use it to stop such a case from moving forward is horrifying. And imagine the kind of precedent it could set for officers who abuse their authority while in uniform or on duty. Just no.
But Seyma didn't include Davis' behavior in Judge Tomie Green's courtroom in her original story. The City's attorney came in late, then repeatedly interrupted Green as she was talking, including as she was giving her ruling. At first she tried to be patient with him, while pointing out, “That’s disrespectful to the court.” Davis told her he was not trying to be disrespectful to the court, to which she eventually responded, “then shut up while I’m talking.”
Judge Green finally told Davis that the city attorney might consider finding someone else to argue cases in her courtroom, due to his attitude and disrespect of her. “The City may have a problem with you representing in this courtroom," Green warned.
The IHL Shortlist List: 'Suspicious and Strategic'?
Don’t miss investigative fellow Nick Judin’s first piece on the chancellor battle at the University of Mississippi out today. Nick, an Ole Miss graduate, is not just covering the Institutions of Higher Learning, and other higher-ed issues, about his alma mater, however, as you’ll see soon. He’s a great digger for information, and dials the phone obsessively for sources, reminding me of Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in the great journalism film “All the President’s Men” in that scene where he keeps dialing, scribbling new names and crossing them off as he reaches him. There’s so much good reporting advice in that one scene.
In Nick’s story today, one thing in particular stuck out to me. Several faculty members talked to him about the odd leak of the short list of chancellor candidates that appeared weeks ago in NBC News Chairman Andy Lack’s website in Mississippi, which happens to have close ties to Ole Miss. When I read that story then, it felt “suspicious and strategic” to me as one professor characterized it to Nick in his new story.
For one thing, the leaked list of names were in a story that included international lobbyist Trent Lott praising his choice for chancellor, but without endorsements of others on the final list. That was weird in its own right (and especially days after another story with Lott slamming Trump’s impeachment inquiry over Ukraine, but without mentioning his and his firm’s lobbying for Russia or its Moscow office, as Nick and I reported recently in this larger piece about southern lobbyists’ role in that morass).
But the leak itself gave me pause. Reporters love leaks to pieces, often for good reason—but editors must always ask why someone might be leaking something to us and watch out for our reporters being used as pawns and why. Clearly, there was a reason for the leak, probably strategic, and it is worrying folks at Ole Miss, so my hunch proved out. We’ve gotten reports on who is believed to have leaked the list, but do not have definitive information to date. But no doubt the leak muddied the process and caused candidates on the list to distance themselves. It remains to be seen how that might have affected the sudden selection of Boyce. Sure feels like a lot of politics were at play from various camps.
Meantime, if you have tips related to higher education in Mississippi for Nick (or other investigative ideas), email him at [email protected] Or me, of course.
Pretty Sure Espy’s Running and Ready to Rumble
I bumped into Secretary Mike Espy just before he went up on stage last night at the Mississippi Center for Justice dinner to give an award to Mississippi civil-rights veterans in attendance, including the wonderful Hollis Watkins, mentioned in Ashton Pittman's latest race-history-then-and-now piece in the current issue. (And boo, hiss to the folks at the rich tables up front who didn’t stand for Watkins and the veterans. I was whooping from my table in the cheap seats because, for one thing, all of us couldn’t be in that room together last night without fearing being firebombed had these heroes not put their lives on the line to stop Jim Crow.)
Espy stopped to chat, filling me in a bit on his plans for the Senate repeat run against U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, which it sounds like will start in earnest after the November 2019 elections. I expect even more fireworks this time around, and likely a humongous turnout during a presidential year, and Espy sounds confident and ready to rumble.
Especially after seeing a campaign email from Espy today leading by slamming "President Trump’s reckless and inexplicable actions," my guess is that he is going to come out swinging against Cindy Hyde-Smith and Trump. In fact, he already is. Today he wrote: "Showing blind allegiance to the president, Republican senators like Cindy Hyde-Smith are accusing Democrats of “grasping at straws,” and of being mad with the president. As the evidence continues to come in at a rapid clip, I would remind all senators that the oath they took is to the country, and not to any party or to any president. I remind them that as the impeachment inquiry seemingly morphs into Articles of Impeachment, and heads toward a trial in the Senate—they all will be called upon to serve as jurors and are therefore duty bound to be impartial."
Hint to whomever needs to hear it: Secretary Espy might be a good person to ask to balance Trent Lott's comments about impeachment. Just a guess.
Also at the dinner, I was thrilled to see Sammy Moon, a prominent gay man in the nonprofit world here, both honored on stage and to hear his breaking-news announcement about a new Mississippi LGTBQ fund hitting its first goal of raising $100,000. Sammy is a gift to Mississippi, and seeing him on that state was wonderful. Good luck to him and the fund.
Of Private Schools, Coincidences and Angry Men
Cheers to Bobby Harrison of Mississippi Today for figuring out that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had filmed a spot about public education in a private school, New Summit, in Jackson, and featuring private-school teachers. And to Ashton Pittman who followed up Bobby’s story, with proper credit (ahem, Mississippi media), and added more of his usual context to further the story. Mississippi media ought to actually be collaborative rather than just public hand-waving about it.
Reeves’ stunt reminded me of getting viciously blasted years ago because an outspoken, anti-LGBT blogger and conservative businessman realized that we had asked a little girl, a daughter of a friend of ours, to model on a JFP cover about public education. Her sin was that she attended private school. The story wasn’t about her, nor did it interview her; we just needed a model fast, and she was available.
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But, and get this, it merited a nasty write-up about her and her family on the dude’s jacksonfreakpress.net sexist “parody” blog about us (with a drawing of me whipping Todd), and linked the little girl’s name to a photo of genital warts—until her father went ballistic and called the dude’s prominent buddies—whom I had dubbed the North Jackson Angry Men’s Club, or N-Jam Club, due to their obsession with harassing me out of the newspaper business—to make him take it down.
One of the members even wrote a piece blasting my newspaper's "flatulence," and talking about me dubbing them N-JAM members in another member's north Jackson newspaper—after I had figured out and reported that one of them had started the secretive Better Jackson PAC that was raising money without reporting it from supporters of what was then called "Two Lakes" that was paying for scary crime ads running in mostly white neighborhoods on behalf of their pro-lakes candidate. (I understand if you have to read that sentence again.) It was also kinda funny when the newspaper publisher tried to claim later in his newspaper column that they came up with the N-JAM Club for themselves. Dude, that's my intellectual property. Hands off.
Remembering this absurd saga from more than a decade ago brings to mind Jackson City Council President Virgi Lindsay's words to me in the current "Let's Talk Jackson" podcast: "There is no doubt that women in Mississippi who are out there and doing things tend to be more of a target then the male colleagues, they just are...you do learn to live with it, part of what you know is going to be part of your daily reality." Seriously, there's a desperation to the attempts to belittle women into silence here that is at once hilarious and pathetic, especially on the part of educated men.
I will admit now that the warts man—not the newspaperman—ended up settling for a dot-net site because we beat him to the jacksonfreakpress.com URL after he started his hate-JFP "parody" site on Blogger or some such—and then we pointed it to a gay-rights organization. Those were fun times despite the hatefulness because it really was like looking fish in a barrel. I still giggle about some of it (if not the damnable warts link trying to tar a young model) and, of course, I have quite the receipt collection for the “Collected Works of the N-Jam Club.” They certainly helped me develop a Teflon skin early and helped me realize that the stereotypical uneducated redneck isn't really this state's biggest challenge to progress in case anyone reading this thinks that.
Not to mention, it’s a small metro here. The man who linked to the warts is a principal in a company that that the Internet says still shares office spaces and some board members with the publication Harrison writes for in Ridgeland. Make no mistake: That fact is coincidental and, hopefully, the dude is more mature these days. Besides, you can’t conflate good people with jerks, and I’m guessing this bit of early-JFP trivia is not known to everyone in the building, if anyone. I wouldn't spread it around if I were him.
Still, y'all, you really can’t make Mississippi up. There’s a reason we’re called “gothic.” We don't need to make stuff up; the true stories are off the charts.
Email story and transparency tips to Editor-in-chief Donna Ladd at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @donnerkay where the tweets truth to power and retweets funny cat videos. Read past Dossiers at jacksonfreepress.com/dossier and her personal blog at donnaladd.com.