ASHEVILLE — Five Western North Carolina news organizations filed a lawsuit today calling on the city of Asheville and the Buncombe County district attorney’s office to release an audit of the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room.
Filed by the Asheville Citizen-Times, Carolina Public Press, Mountain Xpress, WCQS and WLOS in Buncombe County Superior Court, the lawsuit argues that, under North Carolina open records law, the audit, produced by a private contractor hired by the city of Asheville, is a public record.
“The issue represents a matter of substantial public importance because it involves not only the conduct and procedures of the Asheville Police Department, but also impacts the integrity of the cases investigated by the police department,” the complaint states. View the complaint in its entirety below.
The lawsuit follows multiple unsuccessful public records requests seeking the release of the audit documents, which were completed in January 2012. The city of Asheville paid $175,000 for the audit, which was prompted in April 2011 after it was discovered that a substantial number of items, including drugs, prescription medication, weapons and money, were missing from the evidence room maintained by the Asheville Police Department.
“Carolina Public Press joins other media groups in filing this suit today because we believe this document belongs in the hands of the people who purchased it — the public,” said Angie Newsome, director and editor of Carolina Public Press, the Western North Carolina investigative reporting project that led the coalition’s formation. “We must vigilantly protect the public’s right to information because it is essential to transparent, open government.”
“Whenever government officials don’t want something released, they claim it’s under investigation,” said Asheville Citizen-Times Publisher Randy Hammer. “It’s their way of hiding embarrassing information from the public. And it’s wrong. Citizens should not have to fight their public servants to understand how their government works.”
“The evidence-room audit should be made available to the public,” said Margaret Williams, managing editor for news at Mountain Xpress. “It was paid for with taxpayer dollars, and sharing the results — as the state’s open-records law requires — would serve the public good. Because local officials, including the district attorney, have essentially ignored or rejected our legitimate requests, our only recourse was a lawsuit. Other local media reached the same conclusion, and we’ve joined forces to urge compliance.
“If government agencies charged with protecting citizens’ rights can simply ignore or decline media requests concerning important documents, how well will they treat the general public? We’re glad to see local media uniting against this disturbing precedent.”
“WCQS believes strongly that it is in the public interest for the findings of this audit to be made public,” said Jody Evans, executive director of WCQS. “It is our role as a journalistic institution to serve our community by keeping the public informed. When $175,000 of taxpayer money is spent on a report that may uncover wrongdoing in our law enforcement system, the public has a right to the information. It is with that intent that WCQS joined with the other media organizations in filing this suit. “
“News 13 is dedicated to holding officials accountable and being a voice for our viewers,” said WLOS/WMYA General Manager Jack Connors. “As an advocate for the people of Western North Carolina, we believe it is in the public interest to release this information which was paid for by taxpayers.”
The coalition is represented by Brooks Pierce, a leading media law firm based in Raleigh and representing clients across the East Coast.
Go here to read continuing special report coverage from Carolina Public Press on the Asheville Police Department’s evidence-room audit.