The ability to obtain copies of public documents through the open records process is a key factor in holding politicians accountable…but it’s still just part of what can be a very long process.
With rumors floating around that Smith was using taxpayer money to pay for personal expenses, two intrepid reporters from the Florida Times-Union–Paul Pinkham and Gordon Jackson–filed a series of open records requests to find out what really happened.
Receipts show extent of Camden County Sheriff’s Car Travels is just one of many articles about what citizens (and reporters) can learn from filing a simple open records request–in one case, asking for copies of any credit card bills for which sheriff Bill Smith sought and received reimbursement from the county:
Camden County taxpayers footed the bill to fill up the tank of the sheriff’s car for dozens of out-of-town trips in 2006, including nearly weekly trips to South Carolina, according to receipts obtained by the state’s Open Records Act.
As Pinkham and Jackson continued to dig, they also learned of questionable expenditures by Sheriff Smith of money received from the federal government through its drug asset forfeiture and seizure program:
Money received by local law enforcement programs under that federal program is supposed to be used for law enforcement purposes (training, investigations and so on).
However, itemized accounts received under an open records request showed a number of expenditures that most people wouldn’t think qualify as “law enforcement purposes”, such as when Sheriff Smith paid jailed and convicted methamphetamine maker William D. Murrell $6,350 over a two-year period in $50 a week increments, apparently for his work as a mechanic.
The financial records that reporters Pinkham and Jackson reviewed–from which they were able to see how much Murrell had received and when–are being disputed by Sheriff Smith, even though it was the auditor he hired who provided the statements from which it appears that Murrell received the payments.
Nice. Makes it hard to get much traction on that whole accountability thing.
In other news, Sheriff Bill Smith feels that the questions being raised are “politically motivated”.