Monthly Archives: August 2012

Lee Tramel’s emails were public record

There’s been some huffing and puffing about a recent public records request we submitted to Knox County. The request asked for emails to and from a number of outside email addresses.
Blogger Brian Hornback got a copy of the request from the county and posted the list of email addresses on his blog, calling it the “McElroy List.” tramel1001_t120.jpgThen Lee Tramel, assistant chief deputy in the Sheriff’s Office, returned from vacation and recognized the email addresses as one of his personal distribution lists. Hornback then removed the list from his blog, apologizing to Tramel, and he and WATE-TV reported that the deputy chief was asking the FBI to investigate how his computer was hacked and the list obtained.
The truth isn’t quite so nefarious. The News Sentinel obtained the list from the county when it responded to an earlier public records request. Tramel had used the list to distribute some political material from his personal email address. On the list was at least one county government address. So the information entered the county’s computers, and it popped back out in response to our unrelated query.
The bottom line was that Tramel sent the list to the county, making it a public record, and Hornback, mistaking it for one I’d created, released it to the general public.
These public records requests, by the way, are routine for us. Tom Chester, who as managing editor coordinates our requests, estimates we’ve made more than 50 this year to a variety of government agencies. This one seems to have stirred a bit more excitement than usual, though. We have subsequently amended the list, eliminating Tramel’s family members, for instance, and taken other steps to focus the request more sharply.

Sentinel didn’t prompt Burchett complaint

Pam Strickland, who writes a weekly freelance column for the News Sentinel, has submitted a sworn complaint to the district attorney in order to prompt an investigation of possible campaign finance violations by Mayor Tim Burchett. The move has triggered speculation that she was acting at the behest of me or others at the News Sentinel.
pam.jpgThe speculation is unavoidable. She is one of several independent writers we carry regularly on our op-ed pages. Others include Greg Johnson, Ina Hughs, Robert Booker and David Hunter. All of them have a close relationship with the News Sentinel, though not as employer/employee. Also, the News Sentinel has aggressively pursued the story, while Burchett has at times cast the coverage as an us-against-him struggle. He issued a subpoena for the News Sentinel’s guest logs and lobby video, and he suggested that he and I perform a skit at the Front Page Follies set to the music of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (“To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to”). I accepted. The Follies are for a good cause, and it was fun.
But the truth is, Strickland is acting on her own. She did contact Scott Barker, who edits her column, to ask if the News Sentinel would have a problem with her filing the complaint — we don’t. But neither Barker nor I urged her one way or the other. In fact, I’ve had no communication with her at all.
That said, I’m glad some citizen has taken the step, which the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance said was necessary to start a formal inquiry. I considered filing the complaint myself on behalf of the newspaper, and I think that would have been appropriate. In the past, the News Sentinel has filed suit under my name against the County Commission, charging it with violating the Sunshine law, and last year I went to court twice on behalf of the newspaper to press for disclosure of sealed court records tied to the Baumgartner case. Seeking compliance with campaign disclosure laws would have been comparable advocacy of open government.
But if possible, I wanted to avoid taking a formal role as antagonist in a process that could, possibly, lead to substantial fines against the mayor. The fact that the story is unfolding amid divorce proceedings also made it awkward. And I believed all along that some citizen would step up and seek an investigation based on the specifics of our reporting. Now that has happened.

Subpoena intended to shut up commenters

Our sister paper in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal, is in a battle with the Shelby County Commission, which voted Monday to support a subpoena seeking the identities of anonymous commenters on The Commercial Appeal’s website.
The subpoena is aimed at 45 stories reporting on the fight over the Memphis school district’s decision to surrender its charter. The lawyers want to know who wrote all the comments, including ones deleted as inappropriate by The Commercial Appeal staff.
The commissioners were taken by surprise by the subpoena, and their reactions were fascinating. Commissioner Wyatt Bunker voted to withdraw the subpoena, saying it was “disrespectful” of the lawyers to not warn the commission before taking such an “inflammatory” step. But Commissioner Mike Ritz blamed the newspaper for even reporting the subpoena. “None of us knew about this until we saw the paper Sunday. This is almost a created controversy for The Commercial Appeal,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Mulroy said he understood why the attorneys wanted the commenters’ identities and had no objection. “Suppose this information was relevant in a murder investigation,” he opined. “I bet a lot of the county commissioners screaming bloody murder would be screaming law and order. It’s all about whose ox is being gored.”
It’s interesting that Mulroy understands the reason for the subpoena, because the attorneys have not shared it. “At this point, we would prefer not to comment on the purpose of the subpoena,” said one of the lawyers working on the case.
But the objective seems pretty clear. The commission’s lawyers want to suppress the public discussion of an extremely heated issue. Fresh speech gets so annoying at times.