NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Attorneys for NewsChannel 5 have asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to "reach down" and take the station's appeal in a case that threatens to close some public records.
The station had appealed a public records ruling by Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. But station lawyers argued in their motion that the state's highest court needs to "assume jurisdiction over this appeal and decide this important issue of public concern on an expedited basis."
Martin sided with arguments by state attorneys that records, such as travel expenditures, cease to be public once law enforcement officials develop a potential interest in them. She relied on a 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court in a case where The Tennessean asked for records from the files of investigators involved in a Vanderbilt rape case.
"This case is of unusual public importance because of the restriction that the current ruling will have on future public records requests and the resulting denials of access that are certain to occur if the State's current position is not rejected," NewsChannel 5 attorney Ron Harris said in his motion.
"State and local officials can use this broad interpretation of the Tennessean case to deny access to the media and public by simply claiming the public records sought have possible relevance to an investigation. Such denials of access would block or substantially restrict the public's ability to learn about possible public corruption and the way public officials are performing their jobs."
In June 2018, NewsChannel 5 Investigates received allegations from Acting TBI Director Jason Locke's wife that he had engaged in an extramarital affair with another state official on taxpayers' time. The station filed a public records request for travel records, phone logs, electronic calendars and other documents relating to the expenditure of taxpayer money by Locke and a state mental health official.
Locke's wife also sent those same allegations to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who subsequently requested a criminal investigation.
In the case of the documents requested by NewsChannel 5, the records were created by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in the ordinary course of business. Neither agency was involved in the criminal investigation. And, at the time of NewsChannel 5's request, those records had not yet been turned over to investigators.
Still, Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter refused to produce those records, saying they were "all related to or concerning an open criminal investigation."
Read the motion below: