by Max Brantley
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has won its FOI suit against Pulaski County over its refusal to turn over all of the e-mails generated by former Comptroller Ron Quillin, rather than just those County Judge Buddy Villines deemed directly related to his work.
The county said it would ask for a stay in the order pending an appeal.
The county wants to keep secret e-mails of a personal nature, particularly some likely titillating mail Quillen sent to a female employee of Government e-Management Solutions, which supplies computer services to the county. Quillin, who has been charged with embezzling county money, used the state e-mail system to send such e-mail to the woman after he left the county for a bigger state job. The state released that e-mail in response to FOI requests.
The decision fell short of a sweeping victory for the notion that any work product generated on county equipment is public work product. Wrote Judge Mary McGowan:
"The public has a right to know if the personal relationship with Jane Doe affected Mr. Quillin's performance as a public employee. The public has a right to know if the personal relationship influenced Mr. Quillin in expenditures of county funds. Further, the plaintiff's argument that the county lacks standing to assert that the Quillin/Doe emails are private or personal has merit.
"This court wants to make clear, however, that the facts in this case are determinative as to the finding that these e-mails are public records. In no way is this court finding that all emails on Pulaski County computers are, in fact, public records. In short, those decisions must be made on a case by case basis."
At a hearing this morning, the county said release of the e-mail -- a record, surely, of what Quillin did at work -- could "chill" government hiring. Where, the county asked, would FOI requests stop -- at family photos on a government employee's desk? Poppycock.
No one appeared for Quillin. But Blake Hendrix was present representing Quillin's girl friend. She was not identified in court, but e-mails already released by the state identify her. He argued against release of the material and for a seal on proceedings.
Some explicit notes among the batch released by the state was offered in evidence by Pulaski County as an example of the type of e-mail being withheld. i.e., " ... I want to feel your warm wet tongue intertwined with mine...."
Judge McGowan denied the woman's motion for anonymity, saying "...this court finds that Jane Doe had no expectation of privacy when she emailed Mr. Quillin at his Pulaski County government email address. She had a business relationship with Mr. Quillin concerning the software product her company sold the county. ... it is impossible to discern if some emails are only business while others are only personal in nature."
County Attorney Karla Burnett described herself in court as a victim in the case. A couple of notes in Quillin's state record showed his wife had been on the lookout for good state attorney jobs for Burnett. She has fought releasing the county's e-mail. It's unknown if the county records include any references to Burnett, as the state records do.
Simple thing: If public employees stick to public business, they have nothing to worry about. If they don't, taxpayers shouldn't protect them. Or take a page from Karl Rove and use a private e-mail account for non-public business (if the law allows that on public time.) If enforcement of the law has unforseen consequences, it may be regrettable, but it's the law. Change the law if the privacy of an illicit gal pal (including one who has been profiting from county business) outweighs the need to know what public employees are doing on taxpayers' dimes.
Once more, a simple prosecution on embezzlement doesn't put to rest all the questions this situation raises. Who's responsible for hiring and promoting and overseeing Quillin? How did he evade travel receipt procedures that apply to all other county employees for a number of trips to St. Louis, where the computer company and his friend are based, and other cities? Did he have any say over billings by the company that employed his "software supplier"? Was the company hired at a proper rate? The questions need to be answered. You can see why any number of people in county government might have someone's interest other than the public in mind when they try to hide documents that could provide answers.
Drop that appeal, Ms. Burnett. Release the documents.
PS -- Karla Burnett is not the only legal player who perhaps should disqualify from this case on account of conflict of interest. (Really, Buddy, are you letting a lawyer mentioned in the records decide the county's legal strategy?) There's also the judge, whose e-mails are on the county system.