The Cochise County Record website and its crotchety publisher have been buzzing around southern Arizona officials for a couple of years now like flies on an old burro.
One of those ticked-off officials, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, has managed to convince several Republican state lawmakers to take sides in the feud by making it more difficult for everyone in the state to obtain certain public records.
Publisher David Morgan, who just may enjoy public records even more than we do, launched his website in 2011 and promptly engaged in a pissing match with Cochise County officials over all sorts of government information he wants to see and/or publish.
But the officials, including the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, often don't want to turn over the goods.
As a way of retaliating against the information blockade and making waves in general, Morgan published photos of the dead body of former Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, who died in a one-car crash on September 18 near Ash Fork.
The sheriff who replaced Dever, Mark Dannels, took the time to bend the ears of lawmakers about Arizona's shockingly permissive public records law while the legislators were on a tour to get information about problems at the international border. That's right -- the long list of border issues was put on hold for at least a little while as Dannels pushed his records-hiding agenda.
Most unfortunately, as far as we're concerned, Dannels seems to have found some willing proxies in the form of GOP lawmakers Carl Seel, Gail Griffin and Bob Thorpe, according to pay-walled November article in the Arizona Capitol Times. We left messages for Griffin, whose from Sierra Vista, and Bob Thorpe, and we'll let you know if they call back.
Arizona has an excellent public-records law that isn't likely to get better with tinkering. Dannels and the lawmakers discussed limiting police personnel records, crash-scene photos, autopsy photos and autopsy reports. The Cap Times article suggests those three lawmakers are interested in moving for restrictions.
When we asked Morgan about the publication of the photo of Dever's body in 2012, he admitted it was done as much as to rattle the officials with whom he'd been sparring as for any journalistic purpose. We can imagine easily how publishing such a photo might be in the public interest, although in this specific case it wasn't necessary to gain a full understanding of the story of what happened to Dever.
At least one other photo did help tell the story of Dever's shameful last few moments, however: The one of a half-empty bottle of Peppermint Schnapps in the cab of his rolled pickup.
In fact, that picture told the awful truth about what happened in the fatal wreck long before police officials did.
The day after Dever's crash, one of the questions we asked Gerry Blair, spokesman for the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, the district in which the crash occurred, was whether investigators had noticed any sign of impairment. Blair told New Times that the deputy who initially checked out the crash didn't find any open containers in the pickup's cab and didn't smell any booze.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
An autopsy report released to the public by Coconino County in early October 2012 revealed that Dever had had a BAC of .29 just before he rolled his speeding pickup on a dirt road.
If things like crash-scene photos and autopsy toxicology reports weren't allowed to be released publicly, it seems likely police officials would have followed Blair's lead as long as possible.
Even if this issue weren't being driven by a personal grudge match between Morgan and rural Arizona officials, Seels, Griffin and Thorpe ought to consider all the ramifications of their public-records punishment plans.