On Dec. 15, the district attorney for Sevier County issued a remarkable letter.
In the most horrific disaster to ever afflict Gatlinburg, a firestorm on Nov. 28 swept into the city, killed 14 people, caused 191 injuries, and amid harrowing escapes to safety, damaged or destroyed 2,400 structures. Insurance claims have neared $1 billion.
But how government responded to the emergency — or in fact anything related to the Gatlinburg fire and the aftermath — is, in Sevier County District Attorney Jimmy Dunn’s opinion, part of a criminal investigation into two juveniles charged with setting the fires in the mountains five days earlier.
In a letter addressed to “Various Media Outlets”, Dunn denies — in advance and on behalf of all local and state government entities — any request for any information or access to any public records related to the fires.
“Any release of information at this time would be extremely premature and could compromise the investigation,” Dunn says in the Dec. 15 letter, labeled “Requests for Information, Records and Documents.”
The denial of public records is remarkable for a few reasons.
For one, a legitimate question exists on whether Dunn can deny a records request before a document is even requested, and before the document is even evaluated as to whether it’s relevant to a criminal prosecution.
Second, it’s not at all clear how Dunn has authority to respond on behalf of other state and local public officials he does not work for or control concerning their obligations under the public records law.
Third, the breadth of the denial is suspicious for its lack of reasonable limits: “…all state and local agencies involved in the response to and investigation of this fire and the resulting devastation are unable to respond to these requests at this time.”
The district attorney asks us to swallow that knowing any details about the emergency response and “resulting devastation” would jeopardize his ability to successfully prosecute the alleged juvenile arsonists.
If the DA is concerned about pre-trial publicity influencing jurors, there are no juries in juvenile court. In juvenile court, all decisions are made by a judge.
Perhaps there are legitimate reasons for not releasing any documents related to the emergency response effort, but it seems beyond logical comprehension that getting a just and fair trial for the youths charged would be advanced by this massive, preemptive denial of requests.
The people of Sevier County deserve to know what their local and state officials did in response to the fire. The citizens of Tennessee deserve to understand as well. It is their taxpayer dollars that fund the emergency response infrastructure, technology and employees, and their elected representatives who oversee it.
Since Dunn’s letter, news outlets have received numerous denials of requests for public records and information. In some cases, the agencies just cite Dunn’s letter. It’s fair to consider the chilling effect on any emergency responder, or in fact anybody in government who knows anything about what happened. Can they even speak with their neighbors, or is it just the media to whom they are prohibited from sharing information? What happens to them if they do?
One of the more important public documents still being prepared is the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency’s performance review, which TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan said is months away from completion.
Dunn’s letter, however, has no end date. The “ongoing investigation exemption” that he references as a denial for any records request can last until a trial’s conclusion. Even after the prosecution is finished, Dunn could keep all records confidential until all appeals are exhausted.
An interesting question is if TEMA finishes its report in six months, will the state agency continue to abide by Dunn’s so-called “gag order” and refuse to share it with the public? What about the city of Gatlinburg as it reviews its actions?
Just before the cut-off of information, news media had gathered enough details through interviews and documents to report that public safety officials did not use multiple options to alert citizens of a pre-evacuation or evacuation — including a powerful emergency alert system that sends text messages to cell phones in a targeted geographic area — until after the fire was already burning structures in the city.
Anyone there, anyone absorbing these initial facts, could reasonably ask why. Handled differently, could lives have been saved?
At this point, an unprecedented blackout of information as indiscriminate as the fire itself has been ordered. And that is something we all should be concerned about.