Judge affirms ruling in case against Knox County sheriff, information emerges about withheld records

Knox County Chancellor John Weaver last week declined a motion by the Knox County Sheriff to alter his order in a recent public records case, even as new information emerged that even more requested records had been withheld.

The sheriff had argued that parts of the order were too onerous, such as making arrest reports freely available for public inspection and having to respond to requests that might be generally phrased.

Weaver in April had ruled in Conley v. Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office violated the public records law in denying access to public records sought by a University of Tennessee sociology professor related to immigration enforcement.

In addition to awarding attorney fees to Meghan Conley, the judge put the sheriff’s office under a court order to make changes in the way it handles public records requests and records.

A hearing was held last week to consider the sheriff’s motion to alter the order.

Conley’s attorney, Andrew Fels, in responding to the sheriff’s motion, introduced new information that showed that the sheriff’s office withheld specific records requested by Conley and raised questions about Chief Mike Ruble’s testimony during the trial. Ruble provides legal counsel to the sheriff.

Fels said in his filed response that the new records were the result of a public records request made in May 2020, after the bench trial and court’s ruling in April. He said the request was not made by or at the behest of Conley or himself.

The records produced by the sheriff’s office in response to the May 2020 request included a series of emails in the summer and fall of 2018 that showed there was an “urgent” problem with the lack of a proper agreement between ICE and the sheriff’s office that needed to be resolved for payment to be properly made.

The emails show back-and-forth communication between the sheriff’s office and ICE about a need to resolve the issue.

But when Conley made requests on Aug. 3 and Nov. 8 of 2018 for records “regarding an intergovernmental service agreement related to detention, transportation, or other services that currently exists or is currently being considered,” none of these emails were produced to her.

In one instance, Ruble had received an email from a contract specialist with ICE on Nov. 7, asking him for a “status update on ICE receiving the signed Agreement by COB Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Please consider that ICE has been funding this agreement without a signed Order.” The email came a day before Conley’s public records request.

Fels also in his response pointed to Ruble’s testimony that denied existence of an IGSA agreement. He later clarified on the stand that one came into effect in July 2018, and he gave it to Conley. However, no information had emerged during the bench trial about written communication about the problems with the ICE agreement beginning in June 2018 and continuing through November 2018.

“Mike Ruble and KCSO were negotiating the signing of an IGSA with ICE while denying Professor Conley’s requests for IGSA records,” Fels wrote. “KCSO should, at minimum, have divulged the email correspondence between ICE and KCSO, including Mike Ruble, over IGSA 74-13-0015” (referring to the intergovernmental service agreement contract number).

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