The News Sentinel won the right today to see most of the emails Knox County had been refusing to release under the Public Records Act because the law director considered them “personal.”
Blount County Circuit Court Judge David Duggan decided that nine of the 13 disputed emails were public records. Three, he said, dealt with a personal legal matter and one was a joke.
The emails will be released to the newspaper after the judge issues a formal ruling in writing.
The issue began more than a year ago, in August 2012, when the News Sentinel requested copies of several emails sent or received by county computers. The county released 50 emails but refused to release 23 others, saying they were exempt from disclosure because of attorney-client privilege, because they contained protected information or because they were “clearly personal” and “not records made or received in connection with the transaction of official business.”
Because of the subject lines or the labels on attached files, the News Sentinel questioned the personal nature of 13 of the emails and filed a petition to seek a review by a neutral party.
A long series of delays ensued. First, two chancellors in Knox County recused themselves, and the case had to be assigned to an out-of-county judge. Then, Law Director Bud Armstrong challenged Managing Editor Tom Chester’s standing in the lawsuit, arguing that the law only allows “citizens” to review public records, and Chester was acting as an agent of a corporation. Then Armstrong raised another technicality, saying the mayor’s office, not his office, should have been served with the lawsuit.
The judge dismissed those arguments and ruled today on the actual contents of the emails.
The emails in question were sent to and by county officials between November 2010 and July 2012. Five were sent from Allison Beaver to her then-husband, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett. The subject of the emails appears to be tied to the mayor’s 2010 campaign accounts, which contained a series of irregularities and lapses that he attempted to reconcile last fall. Two other emails, between state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey and county Chief of Staff Dean Rice, also seemed to involve campaign fund reporting. Three emails were written by Burton Webb during the brief time he served as county finance director before it was revealed he was under indictment in Kentucky. The subject line of all three is “Settlement.” One of the emails is to Commissioner Jeff Ownby and carries the subject line: “Amy Broyles getting her instructions from “Jiminy Jon Lawler,” which seems to accuse Commissioner Broyles of being manipulated by the former homeless project leader. The last email is from Turkey Creek developer John Turley to Mayor Burchett and includes attachments labeled as involving a “facade grant application.”
The judge indicated that the three Burton Webb emails dealt with personal business. He did not say which email was merely a joke, but that would seem to be the one to Commissioner Ownby.