Leader Blues

Monday, August 06, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Judge’s ruling rescues FOI

Pulaski Circuit Judge Mary Ann McGowan is our nominee for public servant of the year: For the third time, she has defended the state’s Freedom of Information Act to the letter, ruling that Pulaski County must release just about every e-mail between a former employee accused of stealing public funds and a woman he romanced while she did business with the county.
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette had sued to get access to the emails after the former comptroller was arrested and charged with fraud in the misuse of county funds.

The state Supreme Court had put on hold Judge McGowan’s decision ordering Pulaski County to release the potentially embarrassing emails from Ron Quillen, the former comptroller and director of administrative services for the county, who now faces criminal charges for pocketing some $42,000 in public funds. The Supreme Court told Judge McGowan to review all the e-mails first, and on Thursday she decided the county must release all but the most obscene materials from Quillen and his paramour.

The emails will not be released while Pulaski County appeals the judge’s rulling. County Judge F. G. “Buddy” Villines still wants the emails kept from the public. He and Karla Bennett, the county attorney, are appealing the judge’s ruling for the second time, even though the emails were sent on county property while Quillen was collecting a paycheck and sending county business to his girlfriend, who is identified as Doe in the lawsuit.

As Judge McGowan noted, “There are many emails that indicate that Quillin favors Doe regarding business besides pleasure.”
The two apparently had become lovers as well while they were doing the taxpayers’ business, and the email exchanges had gotten steamy. Karla Bennett said some were too graphic and too personal for a reporter to see. It turns out that Quillin also was trying to get the county attorney a state government job.

Here’s the key issue, and why the emails are public property: “The personal relationship may have influenced Quillin in expenditures of funds of Pulaski County,” the judge wrote. “Further, there are more instances in which, if the public were not allowed to know, information concerning public money may not come to light.”

She also wonders if jewelry and clothing Quillen had given Doe “may or may not have come from a county account” — that is, out of your pocketbook.

Before issuing their ruling, the Supreme Court justices sought more details about how the state’s Freedom of Information Act might or might not cover private emails to and from county employees using public computers. Unfortunately, the majority misread the law, telling Judge McGowan, who has ruled correctly all along, that she must review every one of the hundreds of emails between Quillen and Doe., which she has patiently done, however odious the task might have been.

Judge McGowan had it right back in June, when she first ruled on this case: She said the freedom of information law means what it says about letting the public see public records and that it applies to the county government.

As we’ve said before, the Freedom of Information Act does not exempt material of a sexual nature from public access. We have had occasion in our community, notably in Lonoke, to see how sex and the conduct of the public’s business can collide. Former Lonoke Police Chief Jay Campbell and his wife Kelly wound up in prison for their misconduct.

County Judge Villines ought to order the release of just about all the emails connected with Quillin’s work instead of filing more appeals that he has little chance of overturning.