To: Angela Corey, State Attorney,
Fourth Judicial Circuit
From: Derek Kinner, writer-at-large, Folio Weekly
On July 28, I received this email from your office in response to my request to confirm the name of the shooter in the month-old case of Zachariah Tipton’s death at Nippers Beach Grille in Jacksonville Beach:
Derek, the SAO’s statement is below:
“The State Attorney’s Office is conducting a thorough investigation into the fatal shooting at Nippers. An investigation can take weeks or even months to complete. At this time, no information will be released regarding the pending investigation.”
Jackelyn Barnard, Director of Communications
As someone who has covered crime and courts in four states — though mostly in Northeast Florida — for 32 years, and as someone who has seen from your office an increasingly virulent systematic pattern of denying public access to information in cases that have destroyed families and sometimes harmed the public conscience, I feel obligated to speak up, both for my fellow journalists and, by association, the public you were elected to serve. (This is, by the way, at least one public record no one will have to jump through hoops of fire, or even pay for, to get.)
The numerous protests outside your Duval County Courthouse office — the Tipton family, Marissa Alexander’s supporters, groups protesting your tough-as-nails approach to juvenile justice, etc. — show a growing loss of public confidence in our legal system. This, I would argue, is because of the stone wall we run into when trying to gather basic information, especially in high-profile cases for which answers are desperately sought.
All these protesters have different issues they’re concerned about, but the common denominator, Angela, is you, and how your office interacts with the public. It has become apparent that you prefer to operate in secrecy, rarely agreeing to release case records — and when you do, attempting to charge people exorbitant fees that include paying your lawyers to review (and sometimes redact) records before releasing them.
The people of the Fourth Judicial Circuit depend on the media to provide them with information about what’s going on in our judicial system and law enforcement investigations. So when you deny us information, you are denying the citizens information.
The above response from your communications director, Jackie Barnard, is a form email. It was the latest in a long series of your office’s refusals to allow your constituents to know anything about Tipton’s killing. And, for me, it was the last straw.
I am not alone in these feelings. Journalist-colleagues often express in private their frustrations in dealing with your office. Lawyers, private investigators and members of the public have run into constant roadblocks when trying to retrieve basic information from your office, which now has even set up a “Public Records Division,” run by one of your attorneys and an assistant. This attorney uses what she calls a “list,” meaning you can put in your request and it will be added to “the list.” So if you want any information, you’re going to have to wait, sometimes for a good long while.
This situation boggles my mind. I have never seen a public records office operate so inefficiently. One example: I talked to Jackie last month about records that had been given to a woman a little more than a year ago. She said I could have the records immediately because they had already been redacted and released. Then I contacted the assistant state attorney, Brittany O’Neil, in the Public Records Division to request the info. She told me that I would be put on “the list” because the records were no longer available.
I told her never mind, because dealing with your records department is a waste of time. Shortly afterward, I received this email from Jackie:
Derek, I tried reaching you by phone concerning your Public Records Request (PRR). Let me be clear — the SAO’s process in fulfilling PRRs comports with Florida’s Chapter 119.
Ms. O’Neil notified you earlier today that the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) receives a voluminous number of requests, and responds to requests in the order in which the requests are received. It should be noted that the number of PRRs the SAO receives in a year has tripled since 2009. On average, the SAO receives 1,500 requests a year.
… As for your request … Ms. O’Neil informed you that the redacted file was last used to fulfill a request in February 2013. Ms. O’Neil also informed you that the redacted file was purged in compliance with Section 119.07(h), Florida Statutes and the Florida Department of State General Schedules GS1-SL and GS9.
You then questioned why a closed file had to even be reviewed. Again, Ms. O’Neil informed you that records still have to be reviewed for confidential or exempt information, which include social security numbers, autopsy photographs and fingerprints. It should be noted that those are just some of the exemptions which exist.
If you should change your mind and decide to have Ms. O’Neil review the file again for you, please let us know.
This email is telling. You were first elected to office in 2008. In 2009, public information requests tripled? Again I have to ask, why? Did you implement a new system to replace one that had worked just fine for many decades in the past? Did you change the way the office deals with public records requests, obstructing access rather than streamlining it?
There is only one thing that changed here, Angela: you.
Before you took office, under former state attorneys Harry Shorstein and Ed Austin, public information was usually readily available, and there was no need for a Public Records Division. I would call and ask for information about a case. If it was a small case, the prosecutor handling it would gladly help. If it was a sensitive case, I would deal with higher-ups in the department, but still walk away that day with my records.
Your office, on the other hand, always seems to have a ready statutory interpretation and list of “potential” public records exemptions, even though they appear to simply be roadblocks to public and media access. This is not a sign of a public official acting in good faith. I talked to one private investigator who filed a simple public records request in March, and by June his request was still listed as somewhere in the 50s — for March.
You have made keeping important information — in this situation I am specifically referring to Tipton’s shooting — out of the public eye as long as possible, thus harming public perception of the event and whether law enforcement is involved, and leading to rampant speculation.
And as I wrote in a recent Folio Weekly story, one woman, Angel King, who finally was able to navigate your unnecessarily difficult requirements for public records requests, was told she could have them, but the cost would be nearly $180,000. (I wonder how much it cost taxpayers just for your office to come up with that estimate.) Yes, the records she requested were vast, but that came after her frustration over your office denying her specific records, so she just asked for all of them.
I have emails from Jackie explaining that some of King’s requests could not be fulfilled, even though the case she is asking about — her daughter’s supposed suicide, a conclusion that has been strongly questioned by outside experts — is about five years old now.
And let’s not forget the legal battle you waged with the media over the Michael Dunn jail tapes, in which an appeals court strongly disagreed with your interpretation of public records laws. What did you do? You won by default because Dunn’s first trial was already over. Then you charged members of the media thousands of dollars for your office to review the tapes before releasing them.
When I returned to Jacksonville last year, I was taken aback at what has become of the media’s (and, again, this means the public’s) access to information. Yes, under Shorstein and Austin there was some information that was not released because it might have harmed cases, but those instances were rare and understandable. And the requests were always handled professionally, with a clear understanding of the public’s legal right to know, not by an attorney saying, “OK, you’re on ‘the list.’”
When I started covering courts in 1987, Austin was state attorney and John Delaney was his chief assistant. They were both always accessible. (Each went on to become our city’s mayor, which showed they had earned the public’s trust.)
To reach you, however, a reporter has to corner you at a public meeting — which you usually attend only to defend yourself or castigate those who disagree with you — or meet by a set appointment, which even then is extremely rare, because you generally do not give interviews. Why not?
I asked you once why you chose to file what many legal experts say were excessive charges against George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. You quickly answered that you thought your job was to do the best you could for victims.
Until you say otherwise, Zachariah Tipton was a victim. Yes, I have learned he was a member of the Black Pistons, which are part of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club and rivals of the Iron Order, and that an Iron Order prospect may have shot Tipton during an altercation. But no one — including Tipton’s family and friends — has learned anything about the case except for a few bare-facts news stories, rampant rumors, and from this publication’s July 16 cover story. (I reported that story with no help from your office, and very little help from the initial investigating agency, the Jacksonville Beach Police Department.)
Is that what you consider a good public service — keeping the public uninformed?
When you speak of victims, do you mean only the ones you like or have connections with or can advance your career? I haven’t seen you do any press conferences with Tipton’s family like you did with the families of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. But I have seen Tipton’s family and friends protest outside your office because you refuse to talk to them, whether to deliver good or bad news, or simply tell them the truth about why their loved one is dead.
So where does that leave the public? You have allowed these questions to fester by keeping the information outside the public domain. People want to know if they can trust the Jax Beach police — the supposed shooter, after all, is active military, and a prospect for the Iron Order motorcycle club, which has numerous members who are active or retired cops and federal agents. Is there a cover-up, as many conspiracy theorists are saying publicly, due to the law enforcement connection? Even the Iron Order president told me that he’s looking forward to you revealing the facts, because he says his club has been the subject of rumor-based rhetoric and threats from around the globe.
The simple fact is this: I want to know the truth, whatever that might be, and report it. The public is entitled to that.
And one more thing: Having covered courts here in Northeast Florida for so many years, I know many local veteran attorneys. I cannot get any of them to talk to me on the record about your policies. They have clients to represent, and they fear personal retribution that could affect their clients’ welfare in current and future cases. Yes, they have said that to me. Is that what we call justice in Northeast Florida?
I am asking you to please re-evaluate how you handle your public records requests, and quit operating in such an opaque manner, for the sake of the public and, yes, for the journalists who want to provide that public with as much accurate information as possible.