Knoxville News Sentinel: Judge lifts blackout on Gatlinburg fire records

After months of unfulfilled public records requests to state and local government agencies for Gatlinburg fire records, the Knoxville News Sentinel learned that a judge issued an order three weeks ago saying nothing in the case before him precluded the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency from releasing public records about the fire.

“This court did not intend to direct or address the actions of any other entities or parties not specifically involved in these cases. … TEMA has not been ordered to provide nor precluded from providing any information pertaining to its duties under the Public Records Act.”

The Tennessee Attorney General’s office, which petitioned the judge for guidance, received the order but apparently had not notified those who had earlier made public records requests to TEMA. Nor did TEMA begin fulfilling pending requests for documents.

Read the judge’s June 2, 2017 order

Sevier County Judge Jeff D. Rader’s order does not mention other government entities that have received public records requests  from news organizations and citizens, but he makes clear that his order on Dec. 14, 2016  prohibiting disclosure of information was intended “only to address the actions of the parties to the causes of action currently pending before this court.”

Gatlinburg city officials, along with other government entities, have denied public records requests for documents related to the response to the fire, indicating that the records are crime records relevant to the ongoing juvenile case in Judge Rader’s court and thus are confidential.

District Attorney Jimmy Dunn issued a letter to news organizations, saying that no records related to the response to the fire can should be released by any government entity because they were part of his ongoing case against two juveniles who allegedly started the fires.

Read the Knoxville News Sentinel story: Judge lifts blackout on Gatlinburg wildfire records

An excerpt:

State officials sat on and kept secret for weeks a judge’s ruling that government records on the handling of the deadly Gatlinburg wildfire could be released to the public.

The order by Juvenile and General Sessions Judge Jeff Rader, filed June 5, came in response to the state attorney general’s request for clarification on what records the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency could release about the fire that killed 14 people.

Despite repeated inquiries, the state kept that decision quiet until the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee obtained a copy of the order through a public records request to the judge and the court clerk.

The judge, who will hear the case of the two teenagers accused of setting the blaze, said a gag order issued in the case applied only to prosecutors, defense lawyers and court officials – and to no one else.

Also read: DA’s shutdown of public records on Gatlinburg fire goes too far

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