by Max Brantley
The Arkansas Supreme Court today stayed a circuit judge's ruling in favor of releasing former County Comptroller Ron Quillin's e-mails to a girl friend who was also a supplier of county computer services. Quillin faces embezzlement charges and a number of news organizations have sought the records in part to see if his personal relationship might have affected county business. The Democrat-Gazette won the lower court ruling that the e-mails were public information and should be released.
The stay will be in place while the court considers Pulaski County's appeal, on an expedited schedule. The court had granted the stay temporarily previously while deciding whether to issue a stay pending an appeal.
The vote of the court was 4-3. Justices Hannah, Imber and Danielson would have denied the stay. Bless them.
The court majority ordered briefs on several points, including whether privacy is waived by sending material to public computers; whether the girl friend and county have standing to fight the release of information, and whether the court should review the material in camera. Easy answers: Yes, no, no. A touch harder is question of whether personal correspondence in a county computer is exempt. I say no. "All records maintained in public offices or by public employees within the scope of their employment shall be presumed to be public records." And records further are open to the extent they demonstrate both performance "or lack of perfomance of official functions." Love-note writing on company time and equipment seems evidence of latter, not to mention what those notes might reveal insofar as trips taken at county expense for, uh, software services.
It's another solid example of how the little guy doesn't stand a chance when government gets its back up on releasing information. County Judge Buddy Villines, under whose administration this embarrassment occurred, is fighting release tooth-and-nail with free taxpayer-financed lawyering. But for the deep pockets of the Democrat-Gazette, he would have won by stonewalling. Happens all the time. We need a law that allows for recovery of attorney fees in such cases.