Sunday, December 28, 2014

Opening of records in sheriff case worth a little rejoicing

4/1/2013

Most people don’t equate a courtroom to a church, but many in attendance at Monday’s hearing for Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry were wishing they could say “Amen” aloud when Senior Judge John E. Sanders ruled in favor of unsealing a civil ouster petition, which initially was aimed at removing the sheriff from office.

The courtroom at Franklin County District Court indeed became a sanctuary for the public’s best interests Monday with J. Todd Hiatt, a special prosecutor working on behalf of the Franklin County Attorney’s Office and the State of Kansas, saying, “I’m a minister of justice.”

Seeking that justice on behalf of Franklin County’s public “congregation” was the driving force behind The Herald’s efforts to open documents related to Curry’s Feb. 27 arrest, specifically those involving Franklin County Attorney Stephen Hunting’s ouster petition. The Herald’s attorney, Mike Merriam, Topeka, said Monday that a courtroom full of the good people of Franklin County deserved to know what their duly-elected sheriff did to warrant such proceedings against him.

“It is intolerable and unfair” not to open the records, Merriam said. Curry’s defense had the burden to substantiate why the ouster petition’s contents shouldn’t be open to the public and “they fully failed to do so,” Alison Auxter, an Overland Park attorney working on behalf of Kansas City media outlets, said.

Those arguments and others ultimately won out with Judge Sanders ruling to open the petition to the public.

Though the prosecution and defense’s attorneys argued to redact the identity of a third-party in the petition because of an ongoing criminal investigation, the petition ultimately was released in its entirety. The document alleged Curry had an ongoing, intimate relationship with then-Franklin County Attorney Heather Jones. It also alleged Curry tipped Jones off about a drug investigation in which a confidential informant claimed she had purchased methamphetamine on at least two occasions.

Sanders ultimately said the potential embarrassment or shame to Jones by releasing the information in the petition was not by any stretch of the imagination enough justification for sealing the case files.

We agree. Balancing First Amendment rights with the interests of a defendant is a tough call, however, once Curry reached a settlement for diversion in the criminal case, no factual circumstances remained that outweighed the public’s right to know what actions prompted the initial charges of official misconduct and false report.

Though media outlets obtained requested copies of the ouster petition after the judge ruled the documents unsealed, members of the public also formed a long line to lay down $1.50 to acquire their own copies of the document. Imagine the travesty of justice that would have occurred if the judge had not stood on the side of justice and openness. If Curry had escaped public scrutiny for his actions with simply a diversion and the records remaining sealed, the court’s actions would have been an affront to every taxpayer in the county.

We might never know if the allegations within the petition are true. But with regard to finally getting answers about Curry’s arrest, justice was served. And to that, the people said, “Amen.”  

— Jeanny Sharp, editor and publisher

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