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Official Rightly Fined for |Records Request Refusal

(CN) — A Louisiana city official was correctly penalized for failing to comply with a newspaper's open records requests sufficiently, a state appeals court ruled.

Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope held a press conference in October 2015. He alleged that Mark Garber, who was running for parish sheriff, had appeared on TV in Honduras and urged its people to immigrate to the U.S. illegally.

One day later, reporter Christiaan Mader of The Independent Weekly asked Pope in a public records request for emails since the beginning of September that included several words, including "Garber," "Honduras" and "immigration."

Pope refused, stating that such responses would be protected by state law. His counsel later explained that only replies to emails about the press conference were subject to the public records request.

After the newspaper sued Pope for declaratory and mandamus relief, he responded by stating that he did not find any emails with those keywords during the requested time frame.

The newspaper made a second public records request, seeking emails between Pope and Chad Leger, Garber's opponent in the election for sheriff.

The trial court ordered Pope to produce the requested records. He hired an expert, who found 588 pages of emails to respond to the newspaper's first request.

Lafayette's city government produced another 79 documents, including emails between Pope and the manager of the Leger campaign.

The court penalized Pope $100 per day after finding that he "was unreasonable and arbitrary in providing woefully inadequate responses" to the newspaper's requests.

Pope appealed, arguing that Mader and the newspaper's counsel made the requests, not the newspaper itself, and that the individuals have no right of action.

The Third Circuit Louisiana Court of Appeals disagreed in a decision written by Judge Elizabeth Pickett.

"The evidence clearly indicates that an agency relationship existed between The Independent Weekly and the individuals who requested the public records from Mr. Pope," she wrote.

Pope also argued that he should not have been penalized because his responses to the requests, while claiming exemptions, were timely.

"There is no evidence that any of the documents the technician found were withheld because they contained matters incident to a criminal investigation or private emails, the original reasons given for failing to turn over any documents," Pickett stated.

Attorneys for both sides have not yet responded to email requests for comment.

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