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High court orders release of comptroller's emails

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Oct. 10, 2007  ·   The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that most of former Pulaski County Comptroller Ron…

Oct. 10, 2007  ·   The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that most of former Pulaski County Comptroller Ron Quillin’s e-mail messages, which detailed a romantic relationship between him and an unidentified woman, are open records and subject to the state Freedom of Information Act.

In June, an Arkansas circuit judge ordered that e-mail messages between Quillin and Jane Doe be released, stating that the public had the right to know if the relationship affected Quillin’s official responsibilities. In an opinion affirming that lower court order, Associate Justice Jim Gunter held that the woman, an employee with a company under contract with the county, lost all privacy rights by discussing the public’s business in email with Quillin.

“Under the facts of this case, where the messages often contained both business matters and personal issues, Doe, a contractor for the county, waived any privacy she may have had,” Gunter wrote.

After the original ruling in June, the county appealed the court’s decision in order to delay the release of the e-mail messages. The Supreme Court ordered that Circuit Judge Mary McGowan review the e-mail messages to determine whether they were solely personal. McGowan once again decided to release the e-mail messages. Last week’s decision was on the appeal of the lower court’s second ruling.

According to Richard Peltz, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock law professor and co-author of a text on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, the court “has with this opinion looked to the content rather than the property/location of a records, and I think that’s consistent with the Arkansas FOIA and in accordance with the majority trend in the country.”

Justices Paul Danielson and Annabelle Clinton Imber concurred in the result, but wrote in a separate opinion that the e-mail should have been presumed to be public records from the beginning.

Justice Tom Glaze supported the idea that e-mail was public record but dissented in the opinion, criticizing the majority’s handling of the case.

“If the majority had ruled, as it should have, that salacious photographs and material placed on the county’s computer by a county employee during working hours constitute public records, the taxpayers could readily learn how that employee performs his work and conducts the public’s business.”

This ruling is the second involving FOIA in Arkansas in the past month. In September, the court overturned a lower court decision, ruling that legal opinions to taxpayers written in letters by the state Department of Finance and Administration, which were previously deemed confidential, are in fact public records subject to the state FOIA.

(Pulaski County v. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.)Adam Vingan

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