Judge to decide later on FOIA complaint against police chief

Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis will decide later if Pine Bluff Police Chief Jeff Hubanks violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when he allegedly failed to respond in a timely manner to a request from an attorney for the family of the late Monroe Isadore.

Lawrence Anthony Walker made the request for information on March 13. Among other things, Walker asked for documents that mention Pine Bluff Police officers shooting people in the past five years, documents that mention officers discharging firearms in the past five years, documents dealing with “friendly fire” incidents and any or all documents, memorandums, e-mails or other correspondence from Hubanks or his staff that mention Isadore.

“This is a clear-cut case: The defendant violated the statute,” said attorney Crystal Okoro, who represented Walker during the hearing that lasted more than two and a half hours Monday morning in Dennis’ courtroom.

Arkansas law requires that a response to an FOIA request be made within three working days.

“That wasn’t done,” Okoro said.

She said the first response to the request was March 20, and that Hubanks also said that a portion of the request was exempt from the FOIA, but did not do that within a 24-hour period as required by the law.

When he testified, Hubanks said he was not in the office when Walker made the first request, “and that was why there was an initial delay. Also, I didn’t have the most efficient way to deal with the FOIA at that time.”

On March 17, Hubanks sent an email to City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott, telling her that the request was very broad.

“We will gladly comply if we could narrow it down a bit,” Hubanks wrote in the email.

The following day, Walker sent Hubanks an email saying that he had not received the information requested. A courier that Walker sent to the police department and the city attorney’s office to pick up the information was told there was nothing to pick up, and Walker filed the complaint.

Hubanks responded to Walker by email, saying that he had forwarded the request to Hadden-Scott and he would respond to the FOIA request “when she advises me to do so.”

“You have no need to present me with an FOIA unless you request personnel records,” Hubanks said in the email. “However, when you do, I will formally involve the city attorney. Otherwise, this stuff is public domain and I will freely give it to you. I will even have somebody deliver it to your office.”

Later March 19, Hadden-Scott sent Walker copies of several items, including a press release from Sgt. David DeFoor citing an order from Circuit Judge Berlin Jones telling police officers and others involved in the investigation of Isadore’s death not to discuss the investigation and sealing the records until Special Prosecutors Jason Barrett and John Jack McQuary finished their work.

When he testified, Walker said that was information he had not requested, and “I felt they were just not going to respond and I was ready for my day in court.”

Hadden-Scott had argued that the complaint should be dismissed because Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, who is the chief executive of the city, was not served with the complaint. Walker amended the complaint at the end of March to include Hollingsworth.

Walker also said he called Hadden-Scott’s office and also went to the office after Hubanks told him the information he requested was in that office, but said he was not able to reach Hadden-Scott.

“I’m hot at this point,” Walker said. “I called to schedule a time to view the information, I went to the office and she was not there, and I did not receive a call back.”

Both Hubanks and Hadden-Scott said the information Walker asked for was available March 20. In response to a question from Okoro, Hubanks said “I am aware that March 20 is more than three days from March 13.’

Cross-examined by Hadden-Scott, Hubanks said said he “never, never, never intended to withhold any information.

“I’ puzzled that we’re here,” Hubanks said, adding that he thought the problem was that Walker and Hadden-Scott could not get together on a time for Walker to examine the requested material.

He also told Okoro he thought that to date, all the requested material had been made available “unless Mr. Walker comes back and wants more.”

In her closing argument, Hadden-Scott said the city had all the documents Walker requested by March 20, and that Walker did not make an appointment with her, but rather just showed up and did not ask Hadden-Scott’s secretary about the documents.

“Are all the documents in you office?” Dennis asked Hadden-Scott.

“Yes, they have been,” Hadden-Scott said.

Walker is asking that Hubanks be cited for violating the FOIA, for all the information he requested and for attorney fees.