Xpress and four other local media outlets are suing District Attorney Ron Moore and the city of Asheville, seeking to make public the audit of guns, drugs, and money missing from the Asheville Police Department evidence room.
Carolina Public Press coordinated research and preparation of the complaint; a joint effort with Xpress, Asheville Citizen-Times, WLOS, and WCQS. The lawsuit was officially filed today in Buncombe County Superior Court.
“The issue represents a matter of substantial public importance because it involves not only the conduct and procedures of the Asheville Police Department, but also impacts the integrity of the cases investigated by the police department,” the filing reads. “Defendants have failed and refused, and continue to fail and refuse, to provide Plaintiffs with access to the audit report.”
News emerged last year that more than 115 items were missing from the APD evidence room. Asheville City Council ordered a $175,000 audit and then-APD Chief Bill Hogan promptly resigned. But after the audit was finished in January, the district attorney declined to release it in the face of multiple records requests. The suit seeks an order compelling Moore to disclose the report and the city to obtain a copy of the audit it’s entitled to under the terms of the contract.
“The evidence-room audit should be made available to the public,” Margaret Williams, managing editor for news at Xpress, said in an official announcement of the lawsuit. “It was paid for with taxpayer dollars, and sharing the results — as the state’s open-records law requires — would serve the public good. Because local officials, including the district attorney, have essentially ignored or rejected our legitimate requests, our only recourse was a lawsuit. Other local media reached the same conclusion, and we’ve joined forces to urge compliance.
“If government agencies charged with protecting citizens’ rights can simply ignore or decline media requests concerning important documents, how well will they treat the general public? We’re glad to see local media uniting against this disturbing precedent.”
“As a result of Defendants’ violation of the Public Records Act, Plaintiffs’ and the public’s understanding of the people’s business has been and is being impaired,” the suit declares. “The information sought by Plaintiffs is essential to the maintaining of the public’s understanding of and confidence in the work of law enforcement officials supervised by Defendants.”
The alliance of local media is represented by Raleigh-based firm Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey and Leonard.
Xpress filed two records request, in January and March, asking for the records, and received no response. Other outlets also made requests throughout April and May. Moore eventually denied some requests, citing a blanket opinion from the state office of the courts that they were not public records. In April, Xpress, coordinated a joint statement signed by nine local media outlets signed a statement calling for the documents’ release.
“Defendants’ failure to release the audit report documents on the grounds that they constitute ‘records of criminal investigations’ is not supported by the plain language of the statute,” the suit asserts. “A catalogue of the items in the evidence room, specifying which items have gone missing, does not ‘pertain to a person or group of persons’ and therefore does not meet the definition of ‘records of criminal investigations’ set out in the statute.”
Moore has briefed local defense attorneys and city officials on the results of the audit, and according to the suit, one defense attorney was provided with a copy.
Meanwhile, the city is entitled to a redacted copy, according to its contract with Blueline Systems, the company that carried out the audit. Despite this clause, the city has not asked for a copy, and City Manager Gary Jackson has declared he is satisfied with Moore’s handling of the case. Council members have also declined to push for the audit’s release.
The suit also targets the city’s government because it initiated the audit:
Defendants’ refusal to promptly disclose the public records sought by Plaintiffs, including (a) the conduct of the City designed to avoid coming into actual physical possession of the report or (b) the efforts to Moore to restrict the ability of the City to make public records available for inspection, is directly contrary to the language chosen by and the intent of the General Assembly in enacting the Public Records Act. Defendants’ actions frustrate the purpose of the Public Records Act, which is that “public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”
The lawsuit seeks an immediate hearing to resolve the matter.