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Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014

City declines to release records after subpoena issued

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The city of Blytheville has denied part of an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request from the Blytheville Courier News, arguing the information is exempt because of a subpoena issued Tuesday by Second Judicial District Prosecutor Scott Ellington.

The ongoing investigation by both the Arkansas Division of Legislative Audit and the Arkansas State Police involves suspected illegal activity by a former employee of the Blytheville mayor's office.

Blytheville City Attorney Mike Bearden opined the subpoena prevents the city from releasing requested invoices, purchase orders, checks or other records related to any cameras purchased by the city of Blytheville between Jan. 1, 2011 and Sept. 24, 2013. The CN also asked to see any logs or records showing where that equipment is currently and which department received it.

Bearden said he believes the auditors took that information with them during the 2012 audit process, which has yet to be completed. Auditors won't release any potential information in the report until the audit clears a review committee.

"The city hasn't been able to find any documents like that, and even if we had them, I would have to find out if it's subject to the subpoena," Bearden said.

Ellington's subpoena demands "all records, including invoices, purchase orders, receipts, checks, confidential settlement agreements, computer records, computer hard-drives and any other matters pertaining to City of Blytheville financial records dating from January 1, 2012 to the present, that have been examined and/or seized by The Division of Legislative Audit or the Arkansas State Police. This request includes all working papers and supporting documents of the Division of Legislative Audit."

June Barron of Arkansas Legislative Audit declined comment when asked if the agency had city camera records.

In the July Parks and Recreation meeting, Delta Gateway Museum director Leslie Hester questioned a $483.99 expenditure charged to the museum for a camera that she said she didn't order.

Meanwhile, the other parts of Friday's FOIA request included:

-- Any invoices or checks related to a reimbursement or settlement to Ruby Cullins.

-- Any invoices and payments to any person or entity who has done work for the city on city equipment and is related to any past or current city employees since Jan. 1, 2011.

-- Any checks, within the last three years, to the city of Blytheville from Felicia Bell, who resigned as Mayor James Sanders' assistant in June.

After a conversation with Ellington on Monday, Bearden had concluded all the requested information was public record. That conversation followed an email from Bearden to Mayor James Sanders on Friday saying the city attorney told the Courier News he did not know what is being investigated but the newspaper could "see and have copies of all purchase orders, invoices, checks and any other records the City maintains as to purchases such as cameras or any other item. I told (CN Managing Editor Mark Brasfield) since I do not know what the scope of the investigation is, I could not even say what is subject to FOI and what is not. If I knew which item if any is under investigation, I could exclude that item. Certainly, he can look at our records and if he can determine from that what is being investigated, that will be fine."

Tuesday morning, before Ellington issued the subpoena, Bearden released information on the Bell and Cullins' incidents, and he said once auditors faxed camera information to city hall, he would provide those documents as well. But once Ellington issued the subpoena, Bearden said that information became exempt from FOIA.

At press time, city officials were still gathering information on the request involving work performed on city equipment.

Meanwhile, a June 5 receipt shows Bell reimbursed the city $218 for FedEx Service.

"It would appear it had been a package that was sent," Sanders said. "It was brought to our attention that it was a personal package and I asked her about it and I told her she needed to pay it back to the city."

Was it shipped to Nebraska, where Bell moved with her son, Tre Howe, a former Gosnell Pirate star point guard who earned a scholarship to York College?

"I can't recall exactly," Sanders said. "All I'm aware of here is that it was brought to my attention that it was a personal package. I just told her that needed to be taken care of by her."

He said Bell was still working at his office at the time.

"We try to look at our receipts on different things and it was just brought to my attention about that bill or package and it was questionable," Sanders said. "So I then asked her if whether or not, and she told me it was, after she checked into it, some of hers. I told her, we don't do that and asked that she repay it."

Several attempts to find a current number for Bell, including a 1-411 call, were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Bell signed her name as a witness to the "Confidential Settlement Agreement and Release of All Claims" between the city of Blytheville and Walter Daniels and Ruby Cullins for $1,943.59 on Feb. 8, 2012. The settlement stems from damage and repairs to a 2007 Chrysler 300 automobile that occurred on Dec. 26, 2011, according to the agreement. According to Councilman John Musgraves, the damage was caused by a pothole on Byrum road. City records breakdown the expenses.

A "The Quick Change Artist" of Cape Girardeau, Mo., quote totals $300.94 for four wheel alignments and work on lower ball joints. An "Xtreme Auto Accessories" of Memphis quote shows $1,642.65 for Bentchi wheels ($800), Falken tires ($530) and mounting and balancing ($50). Cullins was also reimbursed for a $135 tow bill from Steve Fulks Auto.

"As with all claims against the city, I send them over to Mr. Bearden," Sanders said of the settlement. "This was brought to my attention by Councilman (John) Musgraves and presented to me. I sent it over to Mr. Bearden to be looked at and to be discussed and as a result of that, that was the outcome."

Bearden penned the settlement agreement, but he said he probably advised against the city settling.

"I don't remember it specifically," Bearden said. "I always turn down everything; that's just my policy because we have so many that have windshields broken or whatever and so as a matter of rule I don't approve them, if I'm given the ultimate authority, which I am not necessarily. That one, my best recollection is I was told it needed to be paid and I just said if you're going to pay it, then I want to do a release. So that's what I did."

This morning, Cullins declined an opportunity to comment.

The incident wasn't the first time that Cullins' named appeared in a settlement with the city.

On April 11, 2008, Shelia Spencer received $1,425.00 for an accident involving her daughter, Nakayla D. Spencer, who stepped in an uncovered water meter hole at 224 Dougan on March 20, 2008, according to the release. Connie Mosley, who was former Mayor Barrett Harrison's assistant at the time, signed as the witness to the settlement.

The listed expenses included: Ruby Cullins (babysitting), $150; Dixie Health Care (crutches), $60; and Sheila Spencer (lost wages, medical expenses), $1,425.

The police report said Spencer's leg had a red area with some swelling.

Cullins, who is Spencer's aunt, told police that Spencer was walking across the street and stepped on a water meter cover, then the cover flipped up and she stepped into the hole. The officer looked at the meter and found that the concrete was eroded on one side of the hole and that the lid would not stay on correctly. Along with the redness and swelling on the leg, the report says Spencer couldn't move her toes at the time.

mbrasfield@couriernews.net

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