August 27, 2016 – The Florida Times Union
By Sebastian Kitchen
As she has become one of the most high-profile state prosecutors in the nation trying some of its most-watched cases, Angela Corey has had a strained relationship with the news media, advocates for open government, and attorneys seeking access to records.
Corey, the two-term state attorney locked in a tough re-election battle against fellow Republicans, and her staff prosecuted George Zimmerman, 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez, Marissa Alexander and Michael Dunn, who fatally shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis – cases that brought her in regular, often contentious contact with local and national media and others seeking access to information.
…Challengers Melissa Nelson, a former assistant state attorney who is now in private practice, and Wes White, Corey’s former Nassau County director, criticized Corey for her record on dealing with the press, a lack of transparency, and for not pursuing public records and public meetings cases. Both vowed they’d be more transparent.
Corey pointed to the case of Curtis Lee, a citizen activist who sued Corey in civil court in April 2012, contending the office was not giving him some records at all and was not turning others over in a timely manner.
Two years ago, a judge ruled Corey’s office broke state public records laws. The judge scolded her office for sending investigators to Lee’s home to tell him to stop making complaints and never demonstrating why the unusual visit was “necessary and appropriate.”
The judge said the investigators telling Lee to stop contacting the office could have a “chilling effect” on future requests. Judge Karen Cole chastised the office for taking more than a year to provide even an initial response in some cases and for not taking Lee’s cash for records. She also criticized the backlog of requests. Corey’s office was ordered to pay $26,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.
Corey refutes Lee’s claim about the investigators intimidating him and acknowledged her office should have placed someone on the stand in court to refute the claim.
“Shame on us for not refuting it,” Corey said.
Corey said, “Those two investigators wouldn’t know anything about public records if they hit them on the heads.” She said, “We don’t send police out for public records.”
The State Attorney’s Office violated public records laws by requiring people to pay for records with business checks, cashier’s checks or money orders, requiring them to pay a fee to a third party, according to the ruling. Cash and debit cards were not accepted.
APPARENT ‘LACK OF ACTION’
Corey was asked about whether her office looked into several possible, and some would argue very likely, violations of state open meetings and open records laws.
The Times-Union has reported on a number of public records and public meeting issues with little or no public response from Corey’s office, including City Council members voting again on a funding issue after exchanging text messages with a union chief during a meeting, top JEA officials scripting meetings, and the sheriff admitting the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office had not been capable of following state records laws by maintaining email records for longer than 90 days.
Corey said her office met on “a couple of those” situations to determine if there was a need for investigations. She declined to discuss which cases she was referring to because of the investigations, but “I do believe that in the long run some more will come out about that.”
“I don’t know how this State Attorney’s Office can prosecute violations of the Sunshine Law when they have been sued and had to pay attorney’s fees and even court sanctions for violating the very same laws,” Nelson said.
VIEWS ON DISCOVERY
Corey does say one aspect of public records needs to be changed. She said some cases barely get into the discovery phase, where the two sides exchange information and evidence, before the media begin reporting on evidence a jury will never hear. Those revelations often hurt defendants, but can also hurt prosecutors assembling their cases, Corey said. She said much of the evidence that comes out pretrial often favors the state.
“What Ms. Corey wants is not the law and she has the same right as anyone else does to talk to her legislators about changing the law. The law is what the law is,” White said about discovery. “We need to provide those discovery materials.”
When asked about discovery, Nelson said that protocol is determined by the law and she would follow the law.
White said he has heard repeatedly about defense attorneys not receiving a timely release of discovery and pointed to the Zimmerman case. Defense attorneys requested photos of Zimmerman’s injuries.
“The first thing the state provided looked like a copy of a copy of fax of a copy of a black and white copy of a photograph,” White said. “You couldn’t tell a thing. The state held onto the color photograph without reason for an extended period of time. That type of gamesmanship is unacceptable.”
With the changes in public records laws and the frequency of records requests, Corey said the office created a public records division. She said there is one lawyer with support staff that “do nothing but public records.”
When asked about slow responses to records requests from the media, Corey said she originally thought the “right thing to do” was to put media requests in the queue with all other requests, but it was then pointed out to her the media have a different type of deadline and sought to find if there was a fairer way to process those requests.
But she said responding to a request can be onerous with there being 35 boxes of documents to go through for some homicide cases.
“I believe they are keeping up very well. … It’s voluminous,” she said.
Corey said her office has tried to speed up the process, but said “I hesitate to just throw more staff at it.” She said she is also concerned about releasing “something I’m not supposed to” about a defendant and then she’s in the headlines.
Corey’s office once took four months to respond to a request for a staff phone directory.
‘THE WAIT, THE DELAY AND THE EXPENSE’
Nelson said responding to records requests would be a priority for her office.
“I have done it at the State Attorney’s Office. I know it can be done. We can do it more efficiently and the bottom line is it is the law and I will follow the law,” Nelson said.
She has had her own difficulties obtaining public records, saying it recently cost $100 for five pages of an email thread.
“I have experienced the wait, the delay and the expense,” Nelson said. “… I thought that was exorbitant for the amount of time that it should have taken to obtain those emails and turn them over.”
Corey said, for high-profile cases, her office created a system where media outlets can pool their resources so all of the documents are in one location and there are not so many separate requests.
White said he would create a room for the media, where hopefully there would be staff available to “try to fill [the requests] right away.”
“This business of waiting weeks and months,” White said, “I think is absurd.” [READ MORE]