Jim Zachary: Stalling public records in criminal

When the Georgia General Assembly rewrote and ratified new Sunshine Laws in 2012, lawmakers put some real teeth in the law. Now it is a criminal offense to violate the Georgia Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act.

A first violation of the law is punishable with fines up to $1,000. A $2,500 fine can be imposed for additional violations.

The Office of the Attorney General is tasked with enforcing the open government laws.

Last year, the AG's office ordered the first-ever criminal investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation into violations of the state's Open Records Law by the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Last week, Jenna Garland, who had served as Reed's press secretary and was the target of the investigation, turned down a plea deal and appears to be headed to trial, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The AJC's J. Scott Trubey reported: "Garland made her first appearance Monday in a Fulton County courtroom and declined a plea offer from state Attorney General Chris Carr’s office. Garland, who was press secretary during Reed’s second term, is accused of ordering a subordinate in the city’s watershed department in March 2017 to delay handing over public records to Channel 2 Action News that contained information damaging to Reed, his brother and other city officials. She was charged in February with two misdemeanors."

The case was the result of investigative reporting by WSB Channel 2 and the AJC. As Trubey explained in the AJC article this week, "Garland instructed a watershed official to delay production of water bills to Channel 2. In text messages the AJC and Channel 2 later obtained and published, Garland ordered a subordinate to 'drag this out,' 'be as unhelpful as possible' and 'provide the information in the most confusing format available.'"

Every public information officer, communications director, press secretary, records custodian, spokesperson and, of course, all elected and appointed officials should take this case very seriously and realize they are working for the public, and all the records they hold and meetings they conduct are public records and public meetings.

The General Assembly has said that open government is the strong public policy of the state of Georgia.

We have an AG who seems committed to upholding that strong public policy.

That is good news, not just for the media, but for the people of Georgia.

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI's regional editor for its Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. He is vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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