Attorneys for the Reporters Committee and Adams and Reese LLP, on behalf of The Marshall Project and journalist Wendi Thomas, reached a settlement agreement that requires a secretive nonprofit group to produce records related to its funding of the Memphis Police Department.
As part of the agreement, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission will release records responsive to public records requests filed by The Marshall Project and Thomas and provide information on an ongoing basis about how it helps direct and organize local public safety planning.
“Before this case, the Crime Commission was accountable to no one beyond their own closed doors and the big donors who they insisted on keeping anonymous,” said Lucian T. Pera, partner at Adams and Reese LLP. “Because of my clients’ persistence, Memphians now know more about the Crime Commission and its donors than we ever would have otherwise.”
For years, the commission has developed and implemented plans for public safety in Memphis and Shelby County. Its board of directors includes local and state public officials, such as the mayor of Memphis and the head of its police department, along with local business leaders.
In February 2017, the nonprofit issued a conditional $6.1 million grant over four years to the city of Memphis so it could recruit and retain police officers. While the commission noted some businesses and organizations that contributed to the police fund, it did not disclose how much they gave, nor did it identify all sources of the money until around the filing of the lawsuit.
The secrecy surrounding the donation prompted The Marshall Project and Thomas to file public records requests with the nonprofit in 2018. The requests sought the sources of the commission’s money and information to understand how the secretive entity creates and directs local public policy.
The Memphis Shelby Crime Commission denied those requests, claiming that the Tennessee Public Records Act did not cover the commission or its records.
Following the commission’s denials, attorneys at the Reporters Committee and Adams and Reese LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of The Marshall Project and Thomas, arguing that because the commission coordinates local policy objectives, it is the functional equivalent of government under Tennessee law and must comply with the Tennessee Public Record Act.
“The public has a right to know how the commission affects the lives of people in Memphis and the surrounding communities,” Reporters Committee Legal Director Katie Townsend said when the suit was filed.
The settlement agreement specifically requires the commission to produce records showing all sources of donations to the nonprofit from 2016 to 2018, as well as reports, contracts, tax forms and emails.
Moreover, the commission must make publicly available the following information: the identity of all commission donors and where they fall in certain donation brackets; all grants made or received by the commission; board meetings and executive board meeting agendas, at least 48 hours before the meeting takes place; and board and executive board meeting minutes, no later than seven days after a meeting.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.