The city of Huntsville won’t reveal how much public money it spends on outside attorneys, arguing the information is confidential under solicitor-client privilege.
AL.com has demanded that the city release records of expenses related to the case of William Ben Darby, the Huntsville police officer convicted of murder last summer for shooting and killing Jeff Parker.
The city declined to release documents showing how much taxpayer money it spent on the criminal case as well as an ongoing federal lawsuit. Specifically, AL.com requested records of payments to outside attorneys, experts, and any other expenses related to the criminal trial and lawsuit that accuses the city and the former officer of excessive force.
“The specific legal/financial communications sought would violate attorney-client privilege and related ethical restrictions on the legal profession,” Eddie Blair, an assistant city attorney, said in an email response to AL. com.
He said the city was “unable to produce the documents requested.”
“I don’t think that’s a valid interpretation of privilege or confidentiality,” said J. Evans Bailey, attorney for the Alabama Press Association, a professional media group that also advocates for public access to government. . “The dollar amount is neither privileged nor confidential.”
Bailey said the city could redact any privileged documents from financial records and still respect the public’s right to know how the government spends money on behalf of the public.
The city attorney did not return follow-up calls from AL.com to inquire whether the city would provide redacted records.
In denying AL.com’s request, Blair said the release of the records “also carries the potential to disrupt” the federal trial and Darby’s appeal of his murder conviction.
But Bailey told AL.com that under state law, that’s not a valid reason not to release the recordings to the public.
“Disrupting the course of an ongoing civil litigation is not an exception under the Open Records Act,” he said.
Since Darby shot and killed Parker in 2018, the city has worked hard to make information about the case public. City officials have refused to release his personnel file and records related to the shooting.
All the while, the city council spent $125,000 of public funds to pay Darby’s criminal defense attorneys at his murder trial. And Mayor Tommy Battle and former police chief Mark McMurray backed Darby’s actions, saying he acted within policy by shooting Parker.
But the city did not disclose what it paid an outside attorney for work related to the criminal case, or what it spent defending the lawsuit.
After a Madison County jury found Darby guilty of murder last summer, the city — in motions filed by its outside attorneys — objected to a judge’s order that returned the body camera footage at AL.com.
Those actions earned Huntsville the 2022 Golden Padlock from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, a group that annually names the “top secret government agencies in the United States.”
The remarkable level of secrecy in Huntsville has surpassed efforts to prevent the release of public documents by much larger agencies, such as the State of Arizona and the United States Food and Drug Administration.
But this latest denial breaks new ground, withholding the most seemingly basic information about how the city spends public money. In the past, the city has released financial records related to Darby’s case, even when it withheld police records like body cameras or incident reports.
Last year, AL.com obtained city records showing that for more than two months after his murder conviction, Darby remained on the city payroll. The state stripped Darby of his law enforcement certificate, but the city did not fire him. He resigned about a month before a judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.