Big Luther Another reason why Sheriff Ana Franklin hasn't been prosecuted. Alabama is one big disgrace from the State down.
You can’t handle the truth!”
It’s the memorable line by Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.” Playing a colonel whose certainty that his value to the public is so great that it merits cover-ups and deception, he yells it at a defense attorney.
Attorney General Luther Strange was less theatrical, but he said basically the same thing when The Decatur Daily submitted a public records request for documents that would identify the defendant in a case for which Strange hired outside counsel. The hit to taxpayers on the legal contract is $195 per hour, up to $990,000.
Instead of revealing the name of the defendant whose prosecution merits $1 million in outside legal fees, the attorney general carefully blacked out references to the defendant or the judge in the documents it produced.
The attorney general’s version of Nicholson’s line: “This office has redacted information deemed detrimental to the best interest of the public from this disclosure. … To provide details of the specific case(s) would negatively impact the public interest.”
State law places upon Strange one of the most important duties in maintaining accountable government. He is charged with advising state agencies of their obligations under the public records act. Dozens of attorney general opinions, issued to everyone from town mayors to governors, begin with Section 36-12-40 of the Alabama Code: “Every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise provided by statute.”
It’s a powerful law, which is appropriate for a state whose population is not enamored of government officials who hold themselves above their constituents. Through that law, Alabamians have rejected the paternalistic model of government in which the people bow to the superior wisdom of their leaders.
In numerous opinions, attorneys general have served as the check on officials who believe they are above the people they serve.
What courts and attorneys general alike have discovered is that most times officials’ reluctance to release public records has more to do with a fear of embarrassment than with a concern for the public good.
In January, Assistant Attorney General Matt Hart presented the legal contract to the Contract Review Permanent Legislative Oversight Committee, a body charged with overseeing agencies’ contracts with outside companies and firms. The committee has minimal direct power but an important function.
It exposes the contracts to public as well as legislative scrutiny. In concert with the public records law, the committee’s proceedings provide citizens with the ability to better understand the workings and expenditures of their government.
At that meeting, Hart, who since October 2014 has been prosecuting House Speaker Mike Hubbard on 23 felony counts, announced his office’s plan to extend the contract with a law firm it retained in October 2014. Hart was tight-lipped when answering the committee members’ few questions, but he said it was for an unspecified criminal case.
Three public records requests later, the Attorney General’s Office still refuses to identify the criminal defendant. We did not ask for case strategies, grand jury testimony or witness statements. Our requests were limited to documents that would reveal a fact the public has every right to know: What prosecution merits the expenditure of $1 million?
The attorney general has steadfastly refused to provide the information. In blacking out the name of the defendant in the documents he produced, he also has blacked out the public’s right to know.
His paternalistic rationale — that in his wisdom, he has “deemed (the information) detrimental to the best interest of the public” — is an affront to his constituents.
He’s saying to the those who placed him in office and pay his salary, “You can’t handle the truth!”
The people of Alabama can handle the truth. In fact, they expect it.