NewsNewsChannel 5 Investigates


Public records 'hold government officials accountable' but are getting harder to obtain

More than 500 exemptions exist to public records laws in Tennessee
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Posted at 1:57 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 19:54:40-05

NewsChannel 5 Investigates relies heavily on public records for its reporting.

Some records are available online, others require an official records request.

In May, we showed you police video of a Lewisburg Police Officer arresting a 10-year-old girl.

It only became public after our Public Records Request.

The same is true for police video showing Metro Councilman Jonathan Hall right after he rear-ended a woman's car.

The video shows him assuring the officer at the scene of the crash that he had car insurance, but it turns out he did not.

NewsChannel 5's Investigative Reporter Jennifer Kraus requested the video from police after the woman Hall crashed into said he had not paid for repairs.

"Public records were crucial in this story," Kraus said. "Not only did we obtain that video to really tell the story, but we were also able to essentially be there on the scene watching to see what happened and to see exactly what Metro Councilman Jonathan Hall said on the scene of the accident."

NewsChannel 5 discovered the video showing the arrest of the 10-year-old girl only after reviewing the disciplinary history of a police officer involved in the death of a man at the Marshall County Jail.

Media Lawyer Paul McAdoo said all types of public records help hold government officials accountable.

"Public records are critical to understanding what our government is doing," McAdoo said. "Without them, you really only get what the government wants you to hear and know."

McAdoo said it's getting harder to obtain public records.

Lawmakers have written more than 500 exemptions to the public records laws.

Some make sense — like protecting juveniles — as we did when the 10-year-old was arrested.

Others are more questionable.

The attorney general has said lawmakers' emails are exempt — and cannot be obtained.

Lawmakers keep adding new exemptions.

"It's getting harder every year. The legislature puts in new ones, and they rarely take any out," McAdoo said.

Kraus said she started looking into Councilman Hall after voters in his district used public records to try and find out who donated to his campaign.

"Those public records are available online. Anyone can check any elected official to see who is giving them money," Kraus said.

Her first report showed Hall received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions but had not listed who gave him the money or how he spent it — as required by law.

"Reports were not filed on time which raised a whole lot of questions," Kraus said.

Following Kraus' reporting, state regulators fined Hall $360,000 after he did not attend a required hearing to explain his campaign finances.

While some public records are available online, others require a written request.

Government agencies have the right to charge for the time it takes to produce the documents and sometimes those charges can be high.

"I've seen exorbitant costs. Things like extensive email searches, video that needs to be reviewed, are two prime examples of when costs balloon," McAdoo said.

But the way around high costs is to ask to personally inspect the records.

That is free — charges come if you ask for copies.

Public records are for everyone, not just reporters.

"Reporters use them to investigate things and tell stories but they are specifically for the public," Kraus said.