County Stalls Release of Records on Employee Disciplined for Releasing Records

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Earlier this month, Maricopa County moved at lightning speed to turn over documents to a newspaper about a fired sheriff's deputy.

Now, county officials are taking their sweet time to release records related to the discipline of the fall guy (or gal) who handed over those deputy documents.

Part of our annoyance with this situation stems from the odd way we and other media outlets were shut out of the original story.

The scoopage began when an employee for Maricopa County tipped off Republic reporter JJ Hensley, letting him know he should request some documents about Joel Fox, the fired sheriff's deputy, from the county's Human Resources department.

Hensley put in the request and the documents were promptly released. After Hensley published an article based on the records, other media -- including New Times -- asked the county for the same documents, but were refused.

Here's an excerpt from an Associated Press article about the documents:

Maricopa County denied a request Thursday by The Associated Press to release a copy of Fox's appeal. County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick said a court order prevents such a release and that an employee who mistakenly released the documents to the newspaper will face disciplinary action.

The court order referenced here is the one in June by Superior Court Judge Sam Myers, which was intended to keep documents related to Fox's discipline sealed until his appeal process had been exhausted.

Yet we're left wondering how the documents could have been released "mistakenly" when someone in the county urged a reporter to request them, apparently knowing that such a request would be satisfied promptly.

Gerchick subsequently told us that the HR employee who released the Fox records was issued a written reprimand.

But the county declined to release the name of the disciplined employee. And, as far as we can tell, the reprimand came after the Fox records were entered into the public domain. David Bodney, attorney for Phoenix Newspapers Inc., attached the documents to a court motion on November 7.

On Tuesday, we asked Gerchick to release a copy of the reprimand. After a couple of days of inaction, we sent a formal request to her on Thursday. Still nothing. We called Gerchick on Friday and was told that the entire HR department, plus deputy county manager Sandi Wilson -- who Gerchick said had authorized the reprimand -- were on a "retreat."

Wilson, through an assistant, tells us today that our request can't be satisfied until another lawyer reviews the situation -- and that lawyer's on paternity leave.

We assume we'll see a copy of the reprimand at some point. And hopefully it won't leave out the employee's name, because the public should get to find out whether this was a legitimate disciplinary decision, and not just some kind of CYA move. We're suspicious it's the latter (as if you couldn't tell) because it seems as though the county wanted the Fox docs to get out.

In any case, judge's decision or not, we hate to see any government employee get disciplined for releasing what were arguably public records.

We'll let you know what happens.

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