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Texts show top Reed aide pressured officials to delay records release

Texts show top Reed aide pressured officials to delay records release

Texts show top Reed aide pressured officials to delay records release
Photo Credit: Photo: WSB-TV

New texts obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News show a top aide to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pressuring other city officials to delay production of open records during Reed's final months in office.

Texts show top Reed aide pressured officials to delay records release

In texts from a personal smartphone, the top spokeswoman for former Mayor Kasim Reed tried to compel a senior city official to delay production of public records, repeatedly telling him to thwart a city attorney’s advice to comply with an open records request and even issuing a veiled threat to involve Reed, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News show.

“If she wants to work for the media, then she should leave her position,” former Reed aide Anne Torres said in a Sept. 27 text to Atlanta Beltline CEO Brian McGowan, discussing a Channel 2 request for his employment contract. “We can hold whatever we want for as long as we want.”

After McGowan told Torres the agency’s lawyer advised him — correctly — that the contract needed to be turned over immediately to comply with state law, Torres had this to say about attorney Nina Hickson, a former judge, prosecutor and ethics officer for the city of Atlanta:
“She’s clearly going to be an issue for you going forward. I would talk to MKR about how to deal with her,” wrote Torres, using shorthand for Mayor Kasim Reed.

The directive to delay release of McGowan’s contract echo texts Torres’ deputy Jenna Garland sent last year that have since triggered a state criminal investigation and were included in an AJC/Channel 2 complaint to the Georgia Attorney General, alleging “a culture of political interference” with open records requests at City Hall.

The right of access to government records — for the public and for the press — is a tenant of democracy, and is guaranteed by federal law and codes in all 50 states. Transparency in government actions and records ensures accountability for taxpayer-funded programs and elected officials.

Beltline officials ultimately turned over the contract as the law required. But Torres’ texts provide an unvarnished look at the mindset of senior members of the Reed administration through the unguarded words of one of Reed’s closest advisers and most ardent defenders.

“This is absolutely outrageous,” said Cynthia Counts, a media law and First Amendment attorney at Duane Morris in Atlanta of Torres’ texts. “It’s sabotaging the public’s rights to their own records and (the law) should be enforced.”

Torres’ texts to McGowan suggest that the instructions by former press secretary Garland last year to “drag” out fulfillment of an open records request weren’t the actions of a rogue employee, but part of a culture within the Reed administration to release public information on timetables of their choosing, not those set by state law. Torres was Garland’s supervisor.

“It certainly speaks to the tone behind the throne, this idea they’re promulgating one policy but practicing another,” said Charles Davis, dean of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

The texts also raise questions about Torres’ own compliance with the Open Records Act. In response to an AJC/Channel 2 request on March 27 for texts to or from city officials related to open records on her personal cellphone since Jan. 1, 2017, the city said Torres found none. The texts between her and McGowan in this story came from McGowan’s phone, obtained under an April 17 open records request to nine city officials.

Sunshine laws in Georgia generally provide that all communications among public officials are public records, and have been interpreted by the Attorney General’s office to cover personal communication devices if those devices are used to conduct public business.

In an email to the AJC and Channel 2, Torres defended her exchange with McGowan.

“The specific text messages you are singling out represent an informal exchange between two colleagues, and at best, are inter-employee banter,” Torres said. “The records in question were produced within three business days and in compliance with the Georgia Open Records Act.”

Torres also said in her email to the AJC and Channel 2 that the text messages requested on March 27 were older than six months and no longer on her phone. State law requires general correspondence to be preserved for five years.

Reed declined to answer questions about Torres, including whether her texts reflected his own views on government transparency, but offered a full-throated defense of his longtime aide as “a distinguished public servant who served my Administration with the highest level of integrity.”

McGowan and Hickson declined to comment for this story. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office said Torres’ texts were “absolutely not” reflective of the city’s policies on open records requests.

“This administration remains committed to full compliance with open records laws,” a city spokesperson said.

UGA’s Davis commended both Beltline officials for standing up to the pressure from Torres, but he singled out Hickson.

“She sounds like she should be providing Georgia Open Records Act training for the rest of Atlanta,” Davis said. “The breathtaking arrogance of [Torres] in these text messages. It’s stunning.”

The GBI investigation

State law mandates that government officials provide responsive documents within three business days of a request if they are readily available. Obstructing or “frustrating” the release of documents is explicitly prohibited and punishable as a misdemeanor.

Those provisions are the basis for the GBI’s open records investigation into texts between Garland and Watershed Department staffer Lillian Govus from March 2017. The exchange showed Garland instructing Govus to “drag this out as long as possible” when fulfilling an information request about water service bills at the addresses of the city’s top elected leaders.

It took months for the city to pull the records.

Channel 2 ultimately produced stories based on the records that showed Reed’s brother Tracy and some members of City Council were behind on paying their water bills. Among the delinquent council members was Bottoms, Reed’s successor as mayor.

Last month, when Torres was asked about efforts by Garland and Govus to delay records production, she laughed and told an AJC reporter: “It must be a slow news day.” Torres later said she was unaware of the messages and that Reed’s policy was to follow state law.

After the GBI opened its criminal investigation March 13, City Attorney Jeremy Berry retained an Atlanta law firm with close ties to Reed and his administration to examine Garland’s text messages and the city’s compliance with sunshine laws.

The firm, Holland & Knight, took just eight business days to file a report it said cleared Garland and Berry of wrongdoing. A partner at the firm told the AJC and Channel 2 that Garland’s texts amounted to “inter-employee banter,” the same language Torres used. The report has not been released to the public.

Mayor Bottoms has pledged to improve transparency at City Hall amid the GBI investigation and set a different tone with the media. Bottoms asked for resignation letters from more than two dozen cabinet members on April 9.

Torres’ was one of the first that she accepted.

‘Keep him distracted’

In September, as Reed’s relations with the media reached a low point, Reed announced McGowan as the new Beltline CEO, replacing Paul Morris, who resigned in August. A former CEO of Invest Atlanta, McGowan had been a top economic development aide to Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of commerce under President Obama.

At the time, Reed’s plans to award long-term, six-figure contracts to McGowan and other city department heads in his final months in office became a campaign issue in the race for Reed’s successor.

On Sept. 27, a Wednesday, investigative reporter Richard Belcher made the request for McGowan’s contract on behalf of Channel 2 and the AJC.

McGowan told Torres that Hickson advised that the documents had to be produced by the upcoming Friday as required by law. “Any advice?” he asked.

“I really hate people like Nina,” Torres replied about Hickson. “You are not obligated to provide anything to Belcher on Friday. The Beltline is ONLY obligated to respond with an estimated timeline of when the contract will be available by Friday. You can determine how long that will be. It can hold until next week or another day that provides a busy news cycle to keep him distracted.”

McGowan pushed back: “I don’t know the specifics of the rule but she says that she is not ‘willing’ to hold it beyond the 3 days.” McGowan said Hickson wanted to release the contract over the weekend or on Monday because she would be out of the office one day that week.

Torres responded tersely: “Why is she being like this?”

“Nina should do whatever you want her to do,” Torres wrote. “Again, all we need to provide on Friday to Belcher is a response that provides an estimate as to when the contract will be available.”

To that, McGowan responded: “She says ‘if the document is readily available then we have to provide it immediately.’”

McGowan said he planned to seek the advice of Invest Atlanta’s attorney. Torres answered McGowan with her ominous reference to Reed.

Beltline officials provided the contract the following Monday, the timetable discussed in the texts, after McGowan told Torres that Invest Atlanta’s attorney concurred with Hickson’s reading of the law.

Rocky relations with the media

The AJC and Channel 2 have called into question the city’s compliance with state records laws since January 2017, when the city refused to release documents related to the federal investigation of pay-to-play contracting at City Hall.

The city, under intense media scrutiny, eventually complied. Reed held a February press conference to display more than 1 million pages of documents in hundreds of boxes he said had been sent to federal prosecutors.

The mountain of documents included unreadable spreadsheets and thousands of blank pages, as well as school lunch menus, crime reports and even street paving schedules. The city ultimately produced the records electronically, and to-date, the city said it has produced about 4 million pages to an online repository.

Since the bribery investigation came into public view, Reed and his communications staff took an increasingly adversarial approach to media requests, with Torres at the helm of that response.

Torres did not answer a question regarding training she received in state public access laws. Her bio on LinkedIn states she received her degree in advertising and marketing from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, but came to the Reed administration in 2012 having directed communications for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Reed’s press office regularly issued scathing press releases attacking stories critical of his administration, often blasting reporters by name.

In August, Torres bluntly told McGowan how to deal with reporters in a text message.

McGowan had asked Torres if an AJC reporter could be let in on a story that Torres had promised exclusively to two other media outlets.

“Nope,” Torres replied. “F—- him.”



The story so far

March 8: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action news reported on text messages by Jenna Garland, former Mayor Kasim Reed’s press secretary, instructing a Watershed employee to “drag this out as long as possible” in regard to a Channel 2 request for water billing records for city elected officials. After the reports, the GBI opened a criminal investigation.

March 16: The GBI probe expanded to include the city’s law department after an AJC/Channel 2 investigation into purported legal invoices the city sent the AJC in response to an open records request. The reports revealed documents provided by the city in response to a request last year for legal bills weren’t actual invoices.

Today: The AJC and Channel 2 obtained text messages by Garland’s boss, former Reed director of communications Anne Torres, showing she pressured an attorney for the Atlanta Beltline to delay production of public records.

Being transparent with readers

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey is named in the AJC and Channel 2’s complaint to Attorney General Chris Carr detailing examples of the city’s failure to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act. He is also the reporter referenced in today’s story in an Anne Torres text containing an expletive.

How we got the story

On March 27, the AJC and Channel 2 Action News requested the electronic communications of former Mayor Kasim Reed, former communications director Anne Torres and former press secretary Jenna Garland from Jan. 1, 2017, forward. City Attorney Jeremy Berry notified the AJC and Channel 2 March 30 that none existed on the personal devices of the three officials, but that some existed on Torres’ city-issued phone. Emails and other electronic communications were to be provided when the city’s computer systems restored following a ransomware attack, Berry said. On April 17, the AJC and Channel 2 requested all text messages to or from Garland and Torres from the business and personal cellphones of nine city officials. Text messages quoted in this story came from the phone of Beltline CEO Brian McGowan. The AJC and Channel 2 are reviewing other messages obtained from the city.

This article was written by J. Scott Trubey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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  • Police took a middle school student into custody Friday morning on suspicion of firing shots at Indiana’s Noblesville West Middle School, leaving at least two people injured. >> Read more trending news Update May 26, 1:04 p.m. EDT: The student who was shot on Friday has been identified as 13-year-old Ella Whistler, according to WTTV. Her family released her photo and a statement, that she is “doing well” and remains in stable but critical condition. In a statement to RTV6, the family thanked law enforcement but asked for privacy at this time. “We’d like to thank everyone across the country who has prayed for our family today,” the statement read. “We’ve felt those prayers and appreciate all of them.” Update 7:44 p.m. EDT: Jason Seaman, the teacher injured in the shooting, released a statement Friday evening: “First of all, thank you to the first responders from Noblesville and Fishers for their immediate action and care. I want to let everyone know that I was injured (but) am doing great. To all the students, you are all wonderful and I thank you for your support. You are the reason I teach.” Update 2:50 p.m. EDT: The Indianapolis Star identified the teacher injured in Friday’s shooting at Noblesville West Middle School as Jason Seaman. The newspaper reported he was shot three times while knocking the gun out of the hands of a middle school student who fired shots at the school. Jason Seaman’s brother, Jeremy Seaman, told the newspaper that he was not surprised by reports of his brother’s actions. Students have told several news stations that his quick thinking saved an untold number of lives. “He’s not really ever been the person to run away,” Jeremy Seaman told the Star. “When the safety of the kids is at hand, it’s not surprising to me that he was going to do what he had to do.” Jeremy Seaman told the Star that his brother was undergoing surgery Friday. Update 2:39 p.m. EDT: Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said at a news conference Friday afternoon that the student who opened fire at Noblesville West Middle School earlier in the day asked to be excused from class before returning with a pair of handguns.  Jowitt said the student was quickly taken into custody. Update 2 p.m. EDT: A Noblesville West Middle School student told WXIN that a science teacher sprang into action Friday after a student opened fire at the school, knocking the gun from the shooter’s hand and likely saving lives. The seventh-grade girl, who was not identified, told the news station that “this science teacher bravely swatted that gun away from the gunman’s hands, saving everyone else in that room.” Another seventh-grader, Ethan Stonebraker, told The Associated Press that the shooter walked into his science class while students were taking a test. 'Our science teacher immediately ran at him, swatted a gun out of his hand and tackled him to the ground,' Stonebraker said. 'If it weren't for him, more of us would have been injured for sure.' It was not immediately clear if the teacher was the same one injured in Friday morning’s shooting.  Police said a juvenile and an adult teacher were injured when an unidentified male student opened fire at the school around 9 a.m. Another student also suffered an ankle fracture, according to officials with Riverview Health. 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Jowitt said Noblesville West Middle School had been cleared by 11:30 a.m. However, he added that authorities also received reports of a threat made at Noblesville High School. Police are investigating the report. Update 11:18 a.m. EDT: Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he and other officials are monitoring the situation in Noblesville after at least two people were injured in a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday. Authorities are expected to provide additional details about Friday’s shooting in a news conference later in the day. Update 10:55 a.m. EDT: Chad Lancaster, whose eighth-grade daughter and sixth-grade son attend Noblesville West Middle School, told the Indianapolis Star that his daughter called her mother, his ex-wife, while hiding under a desk amid reports of an active shooter on campus. He told the newspaper he has been unable to get in touch with his son. “This is surreal,' Lancaster told the Star. 'This happens in high school, not here.' Officials with Riverview Health said one of the two people injured in Friday morning's shooting was taken to the hospital and transfered to Riley Hospital in stable condition. A second person, a student, was being treated for an ankle fracture. Officials told the Star earlier Friday that an adult was also injured in the shooting. A suspect, who has not been identified, was in custody after the shooting. Update 10:40 a.m. EDT: Indiana University Health officials told the Indianapolis Star that an adult and a teenager were injured in Friday’s shooting at Noblesville West Middle School. The two have not been identified. Indiana State Police said earlier Friday that they were taken to IU Health Methodist Hospital for treatment of their injuries and that their families had been notified. Update 10:20 a.m. EDT: Indiana State Police confirmed two people were taken to a hospital after authorities responded Friday morning to reports of an active shooter at Noblesville West Middle School. Officials said a suspect was in custody after the shooting. Authorities were expected to provide additional details at a news conference later Friday. Original report: Authorities confirmed around 9:40 a.m. that police had a suspect in custody after responding to a report of an active shooter situation at the middle school. Check back for updates to this developing story.
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Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led to a surprise breakthrough. Maduro handed over Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, to Corker in what his government said was a goodwill gesture to promote dialogue and mutual respect between the two antagonistic governments. Holt, 26, traveled to Caracas in June 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he had met online while looking to improve his Spanish. The couple was waiting for Caleno's U.S. visa when they were arrested at her family's apartment in a government housing complex for what the U.S. considered trumped-up charges of stockpiling an assault rifle and grenades. Although Corker sealed the deal in a few tense hours in Venezuela's collapsing, crime-filled capital, the push to secure Holt's release began months earlier by Corker's top Latin American policy aide, Caleb McCarry, who both Corker and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, credited with leading the painstaking, behind-the-scenes negotiations. 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Rubio warned that Lacava, who embraces the nickname Dracula for his habits of tweeting and patrolling around his state late at night in a Batmobile-like vehicle, was reportedly involved in money laundering, making him too toxic for a White House bent on punishing such criminal activity. When The Associated Press reported on the politically fraught backchannel in March, few imagined it would succeed. Speculation swirled that the government was demanding an all-but-impossible prisoner exchange for Flores' two nephews, who in 2016 were convicted in New York of drug trafficking, after it was learned that a government-connected Venezuelan tycoon was paying Holt's legal fees as well as those of the men branded the 'narco-nephews.' 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Alfredo Romero, a lawyer who defends some of the opposition activists who were held alongside Holt, said that Maduro may be looking to win over some political sectors in the U.S. to temper Trump's hardline approach toward Venezuela. 'Holt's continued imprisonment was a thorn in the side,' he said. The talks were encouraged by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met privately with Corker on Thursday morning and finalized details of the senator's trip ahead of testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the State Department budget. 'We're doing all the right things. We have an American there that we desperately want to get back, Joshua Holt. And so know that we are engaged,' Pompeo told lawmakers at the hearing. The government of Cuba was also helpful in pressuring Maduro as well as former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, one official said. Zapatero has been leading a three-year push to bring the government and opposition together to help resolve Venezuela's economic and political crisis. Still, when Corker left for Caracas on Friday it was still unclear if Maduro would follow through on his pledge to release Holt, the officials said. On Saturday, a beaming Lacava could be seen in a video boarding the Venezuelan government plane that transported Holt to Washington wearing aviator glasses and a dark suit. He walked by the camera shouting 'Dracula on the attack!' and flashing a 'V for Victory' sign. In a photograph taken at the airport in Caracas, Holt can be seen standing alongside Lacava holding a Venezuela national soccer team jersey emblazoned with the governor's name. ___ Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.
  • The Latest on the release of a Utah man, Joshua Holt, who has been held in Venezuela (all times local): 8:10 p.m. The wife of the American man held for two years in jail in Venezuela says they worried until their plane was in the air that their release and flight to the U.S. would somehow fall apart. Joshua Holt and his wife arrived Saturday evening at Washington Dulles International Airport. Venezuelan officials released the Holts after high-level talks between President Nicolas Maduro and U.S. lawmakers. Holt's wife, Thamara Caleno, exchanged text messages with The Associated Press as she and Holt were traveling. She says that a fellow inmate at their Caracas jail relayed information Friday night that prison officials were discussing their release. At 10 that night, a warden asked to see them, then every two hours afterward they were awakened to have their pictures taken as part of a heightened security protocol. The next morning, they were told to pack their things and prepare to go. ___ 7:15 p.m. A Utah man who had been jailed in Venezuela for nearly two years has returned to the United States. A White House official says Joshua Holt arrived Saturday evening at Washington Dulles International Airport. The official isn't authorized to speak about the matter by name. Venezuelan officials released Holt after high-level talks between President Nicolas Maduro and U.S. lawmakers. Holt and his wife were jailed for nearly two years on weapons charges that U.S. officials consider bogus. The release of Holt and his wife and their departure for Washington came one day after Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee held a surprise meeting in Caracas with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. ___ 3:25 p.m. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker says he played a small role in bringing home a Utah man jailed in Venezuela for nearly two years. Corker on Saturday boarded a jet outside of Caracas with Joshua Holt and his wife destined for Washington. Venezuelan police arrested the couple on weapons charges and held them without trial. U.S. officials all along considered the charged bogus. The Republican senator from Tennessee says much of the credit for Holt's release goes to his staffer Caleb McCarry for his dogged determination. He says fellow Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah worked tirelessly for Holt's family. Corker on Friday met personally with President Nicola Maduro. State TV showed the two men at the presidential palace warmly shaking hands. It follows a meeting that Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois had in April with Maduro to urge Holt's release. ___ 2:45 p.m. A Utah man newly freed from a Venezuelan jail has been seen boarding a private jet that's expected to take him to Washington. Joshua Holt was wearing a bright orange backpack and was surrounded by supporters. Venezuelan officials released Holt on Saturday after high-level talks between President Nicolas Maduro and U.S. lawmakers. Holt and his wife were jailed nearly two years on weapons charges that U.S. officials considered bogus. Photos show Sen. Bob Corker at Holt's side, helping carry a large black duffel bag. Corker negotiated the release with Maduro. ___ 1:40 p.m. Venezuela's chief spokesman says a Utah man and his wife jailed in Caracas for two years have been freed and are on their way to the United States. Communications Minister Jorge Rodrigues said Saturday that the release of Joshua Holt follows months of dialogue between President Nicolas Maduro and representatives of the United States. Holt was arrested on weapons charged during a trip to Venezuela to marry a woman he'd met on a website to practice Spanish. U.S. officials say the charges were trumped up. ___ 10 a.m. The family of a Utah man jailed in a Venezuelan jail for two years calls his release a miracle. A statement that relatives provided Saturday confirms that Joshua Holt and his wife will be freed from detention in the capital of Caracas. The couple was arrested on weapons charges that U.S. officials dismiss as trumped up. President Donald Trump says in a tweet that he expects to greet Holt at the White House later Saturday. Holt's family expresses its gratitude for all who worked for his release. They also ask to be allowed to meet Holt and his wife before making any public statements.