A City Hall spokeswoman for former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was charged Monday with two misdemeanors alleging she violated the state’s open records law.
Attorney General Chris Carr filed the citations in Fulton County State Court against former press secretary Jenna Garland. Garland no longer works for the city and could not immediately be located for comment.
In announcing the misdemeanor charges, Carr called it “a first of its kind prosecution” for open records violations by the state.
“Openness and transparency in government are vital to upholding the public trust,” Carr said Monday. “I am confident that this action sends a clear message that the Georgia Open Records Act will be enforced.”
Carr’s predecessor, Sam Olens, sued the city of Cumming in 2012 over its violation of the state’s open meetings act after the city mayor ordered police to bar video blogger Nydia Tisdale from filming a public city council meeting. A Forsyth County Superior Court judge eventually fined the city $12,000 for violating the law.
Affidavits attached to the citations allege that, in response to two separate public records requests made by local ABC affiliate WSB-TV in 2017, Garland attempted to “frustrate” access to records that should have been made available to the television station under the open records law.
Instead, according to the affidavits, Garland made it “difficult” to obtain and review the requested records.
WSB filed two public records requests with the city’s Department of Watershed Management seeking billing, payment and usage records for a College Park address. That address is listed in incorporation records filed with the Georgia Secretary of State as the home of Carlton Reed Ministries.
Affidavits attached to the misdemeanor citations alleged that, in response to a March 7, 2017, records request, Garland allegedly instructed the water department’s communications director to “drag this out as long as possible” and “provide information in the most confusing format available.”
After receiving a second request on March 21, 2017, Garland allegedly again directed the water department spokesperson to “hold all” documents responsive to WSB’s public records request until the station asked for an update.
Carr’s office filed the charges against Garland following an inquiry by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation which Carr opened after WSB acquired texts purportedly sent by Garland directing that the records requests be stonewalled.
WSB and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution jointly filed a formal complaint with Carr’s office last April alleging “a culture of political interference” and a “pervasive culture of non-compliance” by City Hall personnel tasked with responding to the media outlets’ open records requests.
Attorney Michael Caplan of Atlanta’s Caplan Cobb who filed the complaint for the AJC and WSB, could not be reached for comment. Garland, now a senior communications strategist at MailChimp in Atlanta, also could not be reached for comment.
Georgia First Amendment Foundation lawyer Cynthia Counts—a partner at the Atlanta offices of Duane Morris and a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation—on Monday applauded the prosecution. “Without enforcement, there is no teeth in the open records law,” she said. “Prosecutions like this are critical to ensure that government officials comply with the law.”
Counts said that, without criminal penalties for stonewalling public records, public employees can face intimidation by supervisors who may want the records withheld. “If you have a choice between being fired or harassed at work or breaking the law but no one would find out,” she said, “most people are going to opt for nondisclosure to protect themselves.”
“This type of enforcement would balance that and encourage employees that gamesmanship when responding to open records requests is not going to be tolerated.”