August 16, 2013 Clarion Ledger cartoon by Marshall Ramsey
Mississippi Democrat gubernatorial candidate Jim Hood continues to erect roadblocks to providing answers about the state-funded hometown office that he claims as his principal place of business as state Attorney General. The public records fight sits in the shadow of Hood’s public attempt to verbally shame Y’all Politics reporter, Courtney Carter, who asked about the original article detailing the origins of the office at a press avail.
Hood’s office recently levied a $710 payment requirement to provide information subject to a state Public Records Act request regarding the AG’s Houston, Miss., office in question. It was lodged by Y’all Politics and its parent company, Jackson New Media.
AGO Jim Hood Public Records… by on Scribd
While Hood has been openly chiding the Legislature and other elected officials recently about transparency, Hood’s office has now denied two requests for interviews for even just basic information on the topic, and is now lawyering-up as to what information is and isn’t subject to an Open Records Act filing.
“Portions of your request are general requests for information, which fall outside the scope of the Mississippi Public Records Act,” wrote AG spokeswoman Margaret Ann Morgan. “These information requests fail to identify records or a class of records sufficient enough to allow our office to conduct a search and produce responsive documents.”
Those requests included pretty simple datapoints such as:
1) The number of people who work in the Houston office, part or full time, and the state expenditure on their salaries and benefits.
2) An estimate of the number of hours per month that Attorney General Jim Hood spends in the Houston office.
3) The name of any vendors delivering services for the property since 2013 including but not limited to utility companies, janitorial providers, office supply/equipment providers, and furniture providers.
Y’all Politics was the first media organization to question whether the office opened in Hood’s small Chickasaw County hometown for his admitted convenience – and as his headquarters, rather than the state provided and sanctioned Sillers Building office suite in Jackson – is a necessary state expenditure or unnecessary taxpayer-funded officeholder perk costing over $100,000.00 over five and a half years.
Y’all Politics responded to the AG earlier this week, making strong reference to Hood’s gubernatorial campaign mantra calling for more openness at every level of state government.
“It’s disingenuous for the Attorney General’s Office to say on one hand that some of the information we have requested being ‘general’ and that it falls outside the Act while on the other hand saying that you won’t provide us the opportunity to get those questions asked and answered in the normal course of a regular press function. One way or the other, OAG should be responsive.”
In the $710.00 of estimated fees for production in processing fees for staff, computer technician and attorney’s time, almost 40 percent of the bill is attorney fees.
Mississippi’s Open Records Act does allow for “reasonable” fees, when warranted, to fulfill such a request. Contrasting the AG’s stance on the matter, Y’all Politics filed an Open Records Act request with the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration prior to publishing its first article on the Houston office in February, and two subsequent informal requests to clarify certain questions. All were fully answered by DFA within 24 hours at no charge. In the letter to the AG, Y’all Politics noted that the filing to Hood’s department did not demand any sensitive information.
“The scope of the request is not subject to any litigation and is purely administrative in nature. There’s no good faith reason to expose our media outlet to that expense as it serves to (1) punitively increase costs and (2) slow the process. Despite these objections to the estimate, we are paying the full estimated costs in order to move this process forward expeditiously.”
Under the statute, the Attorney General’s office is due to respond on March 25, 2019, 14 working days after the March 5, 2019 response.
Featured graphic created by Marshall Ramsey, formerly of the Clarion Ledger, on 8/16/13).