Sevier Co. Judge: Agencies can release wildfire response records

June 27, 2017: A judge has cleared the way for state and local authorities to release new information about the emergency response to the Sevier County wildfires.

SEVIER COUNTY, TENN. - Despite a court order earlier this month, state officials have yet to release records detailing the response to the 2016 Sevier County firestorm.

Various agencies have refused to release the records for months, citing a so-called "gag order" issued by District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn.

The fires killed 14 people, damaged 2,500 structures and razed 17,000 acres.

Two juveniles have been charged with setting the Chimney Tops 2 fire inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in November 2016. Under Tennessee law, juvenile court proceedings are confidential.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency filed a petition in juvenile court asking for guidance on releasing records. The agency cited a formal gag order filed Dec. 14 in the case, as well as a letter from District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn on Dec. 15.

Dunn's letter noted "numerous requests for information" and said any release "could compromise the investigation."

In a June 5 order, Judge Jeff Rader ruled the gag order can only apply to attorneys and court officials involved in the juveniles’ case – not outside agencies.

“This Court did not intend to direct or address the actions of any other entities or parties not specifically involved in these cases,” Rader wrote.

VERIFY: Is the Sevier Co. “gag order” legal?

“I think the judge was right,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG).

“Honestly, I think this has been an overreach by state and local officials for way too many months,” said Fisher, “the whole effort to keep public records secret related to the wildfire response has been outrageous.”

She said she believes various agencies "hid behind" Dunn’s request.

“Now they need to release the records,” Fisher said.

TEMA has not yet released the records. 

A TEMA spokesperson said they don't have a specific timeline for when the records will be released, but a statement from TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan said the agency "continues to work as quickly as possible to respond to all current and future requests for records.” 

Previously, legal experts had raised questions about whether Dunn has the authority to make such a broad request. Rick Hollow is a first amendment attorney and board member for TCOG.

“It’s not really an order,” Hollow told 10News in April.

“He just wrote a letter and recommended or said that the information would not be forthcoming. And then the various agencies and instrumentalities that have custody of that information have honored that request," Hollow said.

10News reached to attorney Greg Isaacs, who is representing the juveniles. We will update this story with any response.

Officials are still barred from releasing the names of the accused juveniles.

Dunn's office has not yet returned a request for comment on the judge's ruling.

Here is the full statement from TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan about the records: 

“TEMA, working through legal counsel and with the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, requested the ruling from the Sevier County Juvenile Court to clarify what records we could share without violating or being in contempt of the Court’s original order to withhold records. We did this to ensure we would not endanger any ongoing investigations and prosecutions, nor interfere with the right of the accused to receive a fair trial under law. 
 
As soon as the Court ruling was issued, TEMA in conjunction with our legal office, began gathering records for the purpose of reviewing for confidentiality, responsiveness, and  potential cost estimates to respond to the multiple requests we have received. 
 
These requests cover a large period of time and comprise thousands of records, many of which are not centrally located, that TEMA must collect from across the State and review. 
 
TEMA continues to work as quickly as possible to respond to all current and future requests for records.”

© 2017 WBIR.COM


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