Saturday, April 19, 2014

Herald: Public deserves details in sheriff cases

By The Herald Staff | 3/18/2013

The public has a right to know, The Herald’s publisher said Monday.

And the newspaper is prepared to take its argument to court in an attempt to secure information about the ongoing civil and criminal cases against Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry.

The amount of vital information about the cases being withheld from the public is shaking residents’ confidence in both local law enforcement and the judicial system, Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher, said.

“We have business owners, community members and even fellow elected officials telling us, ‘We don’t even believe in justice anymore,’” she said. “People are demanding answers — or at least an explanation.”

Curry was arrested Feb. 27 as part of a more-than-five-month, ongoing Kansas Bureau of Investigation probe of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. But before the sheriff’s arrest was announced, many details associated with the case were sealed by court order. Though the public was told the charges facing the sheriff — including a felony charge of interference with law enforcement and a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct — the exact nature of the crimes alleged have not been disclosed, leaving many to merely speculate about the details involved, Sharp said.

After a dozen mostly failed open records requests to the agencies involved in the case, The Herald has filed a motion to intervene in Franklin County District Court. The action is aimed at gaining access to the sealed court documents. Court officials have declined to comment on why the documents were sealed.

Curry’s status as an elected official makes Franklin County District Court Judge Thomas H. Sachse’s decision to seal the documents associated with the case all the more troubling, Sharp said, especially since Curry is the county’s top law enforcement official.

“The public is beyond merely curious about this case,” Sharp said. “The community has a high interest in the proper conduct of law enforcement officers and elected officials. It is important to the community that the rules of justice and disclosure are applied uniformly regardless of the individual’s station in life. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation would not have filed charges against Curry without a great deal of certainty of wrongdoing. Disclosure of the details of the case enables the public to assess for itself whether the allegations are legitimate. The court has not met the burden of detailing why sealing documents in the case is necessary or prudent. We wish it wasn’t necessary for us to take legal action in order to have the details of the court case open for the public, but we take our role of exposing wrongdoing and misuse of power seriously.”

Citing several legal precedents in its case, The Herald must prove that the sought-after information is of “significant public interest” and beyond curiosity.

The Curry case’s public details now largely are limited to claims that the sheriff lied about unlawfully using confidential information to privately benefit himself, another or to cause harm to another, according to documents from Franklin County District Court.

The unknown details of the case apparently were serious enough to warrant Stephen Hunting, Franklin County attorney, to begin civil ouster proceedings against Curry, along with calling on the sheriff to resign. The first hearing for Curry’s ouster proceedings was set for 11 a.m. Thursday at Franklin County District Court, 301 S. Main St., Ottawa. It is unknown whether details associated with the ouster efforts will become public at the hearing.

“Although the rights asserted by the Ottawa Herald are also enjoyed by the public at large, a newspaper suffers an injury in fact because the court’s order impeded its ability to gather news,” the motion filed on behalf of The Herald reads. “That impediment is within the zone of interest sought to be protected by the First Amendment ... An elected official, the Franklin County Sheriff, has been charged with civil and criminal wrongdoing. It is truly difficult to imagine a matter of greater public interest than the possible punishment of a person elected to office, and the possible removal of that person who had been chosen by the voters.”

Sharp, who might testify during the case, concurred. Details on Curry’s case, as well as court proceedings for Jerrod Fredricks, a master deputy with the sheriff’s office who also was charged with a felony, are relevant to the community for reasons beyond pure inquisitiveness.

“The public is outraged that it might have elected someone to office who could have willingly violated the responsibilities of his office yet refuses to resign, despite the county attorney’s request for him to do so,” Sharp said. “The public’s interest in disclosure of records promotes rather than discourages fair trials. It promotes public confidence in the proper conduct of law enforcement; it promotes public confidence in the proper prosecution of wrongdoers; it promotes confidence in the legal system and it also promotes keeping citizens informed about official government action. ... What is fair for the general populace is fair in this case, too. The Kansas Open Records Acts exists to ensure public confidence in government, to increase the accountability of governmental bodies and to deter official misconduct.”

Senior Judge John E. Sanders, El Dorado, is presiding over the cases.

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