by Max Brantley
John Lyon of Stephens Media also obtained the resignation letter of Teresa Belew, former administrative assistant to Secretary of State Mark Martin, who said she resigned because of the office's resistance to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Arkansas Times. We reported on this extensively yesterday.
1) A key piece of information that the office wanted to withhold was a $54,000 contract with the Soderquist Center on ethical leadership in Siloam Springs for consulting work on "values-based" strategic planning. The secretary of state says the Times would have received this information had it not limited its printing request for an initial FOI to 300 pages — 150 pages each of material from Martin and Alice Stewart, his press aide. Stewart has said we'd have received that information if we'd gotten all pages. But I subsequently requested and received all the pages not printed for the initial request and they did NOT include the Soderquist contract. I did receive that material, but only after a specific followup request naming the consultant on April 6. The initial request was made March 18. At that point, I didn't know the name of the consultant, only that one was at work.
2) I was interested in Martin calendar entries because I believed they'd reflect work underway on the consulting contract. I received in the initial batch of information a blank e-mail sent by Secretary of State Martin, but the attached calendar entry was not included. Belew says she was told such information didn't have to be provided. The office did, however, provide reams of attachments of copies of news articles and similar non-sensitive information.
3) Forget the rigamarole and legalities (though willfully violating the FOI is a misdemeanor). My experience in the FOI requests and Belew's resignation letters are clear evidence of a reluctance on the part of the Martin office to share its inner workings with the public in the manner prescribed by law. Counsel A.J. Kelly gets only limited points for reportedly telling Belew not to shred any public documents. She said he told her "the most important thing was to delay the delivery of the FOIA until after budgets were approved.”
It will be interesting to see whether the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has any interest in news that a publicly elected official's top assistant had resigned after only three months on the job leaving a public document saying the reason was her employer's efforts to thwart the Freedom of Information Act. I ask you for a second to contemplate how big the headline type would have been on Page One had this happened over a D-G FOI request.