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N&O presses for more info on jail officer

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An attorney for The News & Observer today asked Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison to reconsider his decision not to provide key personnel records for a jail officer involved in an altercation that left an inmate in a coma two months ago.

Attorney Amanda Martin said in a letter to the sheriff and to Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby that withholding such personnel information is in violation of the public records law, which does not allow public records to be withheld simply because there is an ongoing criminal investigation.

Last week, Harrison said in a letter that Master Detention Officer Michael Hayes had served a disciplinary suspension without pay six months prior to the incident that has left Joshua Martin Wrenn in a coma at Duke Hospital, but declined to explain the circumstances.

Harrison had declined to produce any information about the suspension for several weeks because it is his practice not to release such information during the course of the SBI investigation. Willoughby said he did not want the information released while SBI agents were interviewing witnesses for fear it might alter their statements.

Once the interviews were completed, Willoughby told Harrison he had no issue with releasing Hayes’ personnel information. But Harrison then only released information related to actions taken after Oct. 1. That’s the start date of a new law that expanded the types of personnel records that are now public, including suspensions, demotions and dismissal letters.

Harrison contended it’s not clear that such information prior to Oct. 1 is public. Martin said that’s not the case, citing an opinion from the Attorney General’s office.

“Both the plain language of the statute and the opinion issued by the Attorney General plainly say that the General Assembly’s recent amendments ... make available to the public certain information that was created prior to the passage of the law,” Martin wrote.

Martin has asked to meet with Harrison and Willoughby next week to try to resolve the impasse. She said The N&O would file suit in state court to win the records’ release if Harrison continues to withhold them.
 

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About the blogger

Dan Kane has covered local and state government and N.C. State University at The News & Observer since joining our staff in 1997. Most recently, he and J. Andrew Curliss teamed to report “The Missing Money,” a three-part series that explored the state's growing number of tax breaks and the related rising revenue loss. Kane's reporting also exposed one of the worst academic fraud cases in U.S. higher education history at UNC-Chapel Hill. Contact him at dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861
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