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Lawsuit alleges small town corruption including unjust arrests of plaintiff for merely making records requests
EGYPT, Ark. – Stephen Warren wanted to know the qualifications of the City of Egypt’s police chief. The mayor told him to “file something in court if he had a problem…” with the chief and so he did on Tuesday.
But before Tuesday happened, he had been arrested for disorderly conduct numerous times and treated with disdain during each records request, the lawsuit alleges. He’s asking for the mayor, police chief, city attorney and city recorder to be charged with crimes and to be forced to comply with his open records request under Arkansas Freedom of Information Act law.
Warren is represented by Attorney Zachary Morrison of Jonesboro. In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday, October 8 in Craighead County Circuit Court, is filed against the City of Egypt itself, Mayor Jerry Cook, City Recorder/Treasurer Velva Joy Lingo, Chief of Police Gerald Goza, and City Attorney Rhonda Davis. All are being sued individually and in their official capacity. Egypt is a Craighead County town with a population of 112 in the 2010 Census.
The lawsuit states that on or about August 1, 2019, Warren asked Mayor Cook for information about the “qualifications and certifications” of Chief Goza. The lawsuit alleges the mayor bluntly told him he wouldn’t provide any documentation, despite a verbal request being enough to legally compel a public official to release public records.
“File something in Court,” the lawsuit claims the mayor said.
But Warren continued trying, his suit details.
The plaintiff emailed a specific Freedom of Information Act request to the city’s police chief on August 12 for a copy of a police report from July 11 when one of Warren’s neighbor’s had a four-wheeler seized. He also asked for phone records between Chief Goza and other defendants, meetings between Goza and other defendants, and body camera recordings of the incident on July 11. On August 13, another request was emailed requesting copies of pre-employment examinations and background checks made of Goza. The city attorney claimed an exemption to the release of personal information and the lawsuit states did so illegally.
“No request to inspect, copy, or obtain copies of public records shall be denied on the ground that information exempt from disclosure is commingled with nonexempt information…” the lawsuit states.
Further, on August 13, Warren said he personally appeared at Egypt City Hall. He made an open records request to inspect the city’s financial records and other records but the lawsuit states the defendant, Lingo, told him no. The plaintiff claims Lingo admitted to this in a court filing from another matter.
“I told him, no, he was not going through my records,” the suit claims Lingo admitted to.
The lawsuit says Lingo also insisted Warren submit a written records request. This is not the law. A verbal request must be honored.
During that incident, Warren was arrested by the police chief for disorderly conduct. This occurred after Lingo alleged she was “fearful” of Warren. Warren states this was untrue and she showed contempt toward him, not fear. According to the lawsuit, video taken by the plaintiff shows the chief saying “the Mayor wants him arrested.” Warren’s vehicle was then towed away under orders of the chief, despite it being parked on public property at the city hall during business hours.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, as the lawsuit points out, the city council meeting was later that evening. This impaired Warren’s ability to attend.
The lawsuit alleges Mayor Cook admitted to the plaintiff’s wife he had him arrested because “HE (Mayor) is NOT GOING TO HAVE STEVE (Plaintiff) BOTHER MS. JOY (Defendant Lingo) WITH THIS FOIA CRAP.”
“FOIA crap” is, however, the definition of their job.
Another arrest was mentioned of Warren by the police chief during the verbal request for previously e-mailed FOIA information. Apparently, a domestic order of protection was also unsuccessfully filed against Warren by both the Egypt Mayor and Lingo.
“An open and transparent government is the touchstone of our democracy,” Attorney Morrison told NEA Report. “We decided to file the Freedom of Information lawsuit after it became apparent that Egypt city officials had no interest in following the letter of the law. Mr. Warren’s legitimate requests for records and information have been blatantly ignored, and we looking forward to presenting this matter to the Circuit Court of Craighead County.”
A phone call to the Egypt City Hall by NEA Report was not answered at 11:10 AM Wednesday morning.
The lawsuit asks the court to find the defendants failed to comply with Arkansas law and to immediately fulfill all requests he has made. The lawsuit requests the defendants be found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor for violating the FOIA requests and asks for them to be removed from their positions. The suit also calls for attorney’s fees to be paid.