The publisher of a small weekly newspaper in Georgia was indicted last week for filing an open records request with a local court, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports. The story Mark Thomason was going after with his request is almost as strange as the fact that he was charged with a felony and jailed overnight after filing it.
Thomason, the publisher of Fannin Focus, was arrested and charged with making a false statement in his request and with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud, a felony. Russell Stookey, his attorney, was also charged with identity fraud. Brenda Weaver, chief judge of the local superior court, was “incensed” by Thomason’s request, and asked the district attorney for the indictments. The two men were jailed overnight and released on $10,000 bond, with trial upcoming.
Public records requests, sometimes referred to as FOIA requests, are one of the most useful and necessary tools in the arsenal of any reporter who covers the government. The laws in all 50 states and the federal government provide some mechanism for filing them. The implications of sending a reporter to jail for using this perfectly legal reporting technique are pretty scary, and probably don’t need to be spelled out here.
Thomason was reporting on the story of a local judge named Roger Bradley, who, while presiding over a criminal case, referred to the defendant by his nickname, which included a racial slur. (The AJC doesn’t name the slur.) During his reporting, Thomason was told that court deputies were also using the slur, and he requested a transcript of the hearing, so that he could see official documentation of all these judicial workers saying the n-word (or whatever it was) at each other.
However, that transcript showed that only the judge and the district attorney were using the word. Being the indefatigable reporter he evidently is, Thomason then requested an audio recording of the hearing, and was denied. He subsequently printed a story in which he quoted the court reporter as saying that the slur was not entered into the transcript every time it was used.
Are you still following? OK, great. Then Thomason, whose dedication to this courtroom slur story is really something else, had his lawyer file paperwork in an attempt to legally compel the stenographer, whose name is Rhonda Stubblefield, to release the audio recording. She filed a counterclaim, asking Thomason for $1.6 million in damages(!) for allegedly defaming her in his story by implying that her transcripts might not be completely accurate. A judge closed Thomason’s case against Stubblefield, and Stubblefield dropped her counterclaim.
That might be the end of our saga, except that Stubblefield then attempted to recoup attorney’s fees from Thomason, despite having evidently already been given a $16,000 check by Bradley’s government account.
Here’s where the requests that landed Thomason in jail come in. He filed a request for copies of the checks to Stubblefield, which he alleged had been “cashed illegally.” That’s the “false statement” he was charged with. He and Stookey also subpoenaed the bank where Bradley’s—and Weaver’s—accounts are kept, to attempt to show that Stubblefield’s legal bills had already been paid. That’s the source of the identity theft charge—Weaver told the AJC she was worried that the men would try to use the banking information on the checks as their own. Which is ridiculous on its face, and is exactly the kind of personal information that government officials redact from public documents before giving them over to reporters all the time. Instead of redacting, Weaver had Thomason arrested.
It’s hard to imagine that if Thomason is convicted, he won’t eventually win on appeal. But still, scary.
Thomason’s indictment follows the arrest of Chris Nakamoto, a Louisiana TV news reporter who was cuffed while filing a records request in March. The records Nakamoto was seeking were eventually released to his TV station, and charges against him were dropped the following month.