Sheriff Mike Williams on Wednesday defended his office from criticism over a $314,000 public records cost estimate issued to the family of a pedestrian killed by a troubled cop earlier this week, saying the cost was accurate but the communication could have been better.
Sitting in his third-floor office, Williams reiterated the explanation his staff gave the Times-Union on Tuesday evening. The vast majority of the cost, the sheriff said, came from two broader items included in the request that his office said would have necessitated his staff searching every Internal Affairs record from the last 10 years.
Nonetheless, Williams conceded that the Sheriff’s Office could have done a better job of communicating with John M. Phillips, the attorney who requested the records on behalf of Blane Land’s estate.
“Lesson learned,” Williams said. “Communication would have been huge early on.”
Williams spoke reassuringly at the press conference about his personal relationship with Phillips, adding that the two of them had spoken about it since the news broke. About four hours later, the attorney pushed back.
“First, neither I nor my office has ever gotten a phone call, a single record or any itemization despite specific falsehoods to the contrary relayed by [the Sheriff’s Office],” Phillips said in a statement. “It is day 35.”
The attorney said that the sheriff called him right before the press conference on his cell phone while he traveling out-of-town. The Sheriff’s Office gave the media information on its cost breakdown before they gave it to his office, he added.
Land was killed by Officer Tim James, who was investigated 11 times throughout his three-year career but stayed on the force until his June 10 arrest on charges of beating a handcuffed teenager. Land’s family is preparing to file a wrongful death lawsuit, likely claiming negligence on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office, Phillips told the Times-Union on Tuesday.
At the press conference, Williams said his office should have reached out to Phillips earlier, and that the Public Records Unit sent the $300,000-plus estimate anticipating that Phillips would counter with a narrower request.
“We expect him to come back and say, ‘That’s crazy,’” Williams said.
The Sheriff’s Office also made an itemized breakdown available for the first time explaining how they got to the number cited in the initial invoice.
Williams asserted that his office gave Phillips an estimate Wednesday for about $600 dollars for all the records relating to James. Phillips told the Times-Union on Wednesday evening that he had not yet reviewed the itemized breakdown.
The attorney in his statement said that the Sheriff’s Office is making responding to public records seem way more difficult than it is, in reality. He clarified that he was also contacted by someone on behalf of Daniel Nyman, who accused James of using excessive force during an arrest about a month before James struck Land with his police cruiser.
Phillips said the Sheriff’s Office continues to issue false narratives about victims of James. He and Land’s family have continually decried initial suggestions from the Sheriff’s Office that the IT professional who took care of his elderly parents might have committed suicide.
“The public has a right to know,” Phillips said. “These victims have a right to know.”
The cost breakdown provided by the Sheriff’s Office will also be reviewed by the Times-Union and compared to past estimates the newspaper has received for public records requests. It includes some estimates that overlap with records the Times-Union has already requested, such as use-of-force reports.
The Times-Union requested a six-month period for James’ use-of-force reports on June 29, but has not yet received an estimate. The Sheriff’s Office told Phillips it plans to charge $9.77 to search for all of James’ use-of-force reports.
Other records requested by the newspaper include:
Requested June 29: All arrest reports submitted by James from Jan. 26 through Jan. 28, 2016.
Requested June 30: All duty assignments for James for the last two years.
The Times-Union has not received estimates for any of the above requests. The estimate is simply the first step in the process and accounts only for the cost of searching for the records.
Sheriff Williams said he typically contacts people requesting public records before issuing an estimate if the agency feels the request might be too broad or inaccurately worded. The sheriff and Undersheriff Pat Ivey have said as much in their statements to the media Tuesday and Wednesday.
As for the astronomical price of $314,000, Williams said his office stands by the estimate.
“Based on what he asked for, it’s an accurate estimate,” Williams said. “Now it’s clearly not what he wants, so we have to work through that.”
Ben Conarck: (904) 359-4103
You can read the original Times-Union story here.