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FAYETTEVILLE -- A judge declined to rule late Friday in a Freedom of Information lawsuit, seeking the release of records related to the firing of former school superintendent Matthew Wendt, so another judge can rule in a related case.

The hearing Friday was in a lawsuit filed by Russell Racop, a Little Rock blogger, who's seeking immediate release of the records. Racop's lawsuit names John L Colbert, the district's new superintendent, in his official capacity as custodian of records. Racop contends the district should have already released the documents because he requested them weeks ago.

Legal Lingo

Under advisement

A court takes a case under advisement after it has heard the arguments made by the counsel of opposing sides in the lawsuit but before it renders its decision. When a case is under advisement, the judge hearing the case is deliberating or thinking about their decision.

Source: Staff report

The other lawsuit involves the woman who claims she was the target of sexual harassment by Wendt. She sued the School District to block release of documents related to the firing. Filed on behalf of "Jane Doe" in Washington County Circuit Court, the lawsuit contends the records, if released, would be an unwarranted invasion of her privacy. She contends her personal privacy should outweigh the public's right to know in this case.

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette filed a motion to intervene in the Doe lawsuit but no hearings have been set.

Doe's attorney, Suzanne Clark, has filed motions seeking to have the documents filed with the court under seal, closed hearings, a gag order and opposing intervention by the newspaper.

Circuit Judge Tom Cooper heard Racop's argument Friday and took it under advisement, explaining the delay will allow Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin to return from vacation and make a ruling in Doe's case that should also resolve Racop's case. Martin could rule the documents have to be released or he could grant Doe's injunction.

Cooper noted the lawsuit by Doe was filed before Racop filed his lawsuit.

Racop said in his lawsuit he first requested the documents June 19 and the district has repeatedly missed deadlines established by the Freedom of Information Act.

"Specifically, plaintiff's request sought the records pertaining to the termination of Superintendent Matthew Wendt, including voice recordings of Wendt and copies of text messages between Wendt and a female employee of the district that Clark presented to Chris Lawson, district general counsel, on March 15, 2018, that supported her client's complaint against Wendt," according to the lawsuit.

Racop contends he was told the district determined the documents were releasable but affected employees had to be notified allowing them to request a state attorney general's opinion.

The Attorney General's office issued two opinions July 9 saying the district was substantially correct and the requested documents should be released. But, the district failed to immediately release the material as required by the Freedom of Information Act, according to Racop's lawsuit.

Cooper, from Ashdown, was assigned to hear the case because Martin recused from the case at Racop's request. Martin was on vacation and unavailable for a hearing on the issue within the time allowed by the Freedom of Information Act, according to court filings. Other judges in Washington County also recused themselves.

The case was initially assigned to Circuit Judge John Threet who asked it be transferred to Martin because Martin is already hearing Doe's case.

Clark filed a sexual harassment claim with the School District on Doe's behalf on March 14 and presented Lawson, district general counsel, on March 15 with voice recordings of Wendt and copies of text messages between her client and Wendt supporting her client's complaint, Clark said in a news release.

Clark filed a complaint May 25 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the School District and School Board. The complaint to the commission details Wendt's abusive conduct after the woman refused to continue to have sex with him, according to a news release by Clark on June 14.

The woman complained Wendt stalked her, sent her numerous text messages while she was at home and at work and told her she could be fired for her actions, according to the news release.

The School Board unanimously voted to terminate Wendt's contract June 18.

The board cited a breach of contract by violating district policy. Wendt violated the policy through his derogatory and offensive conduct and communication with a female subordinate employee, according to Susan Kendall, a lawyer with the Kendall Law Firm in Rogers and the School Board's legal counsel.

NW News on 08/04/2018

Print Headline: Judge declines to rule on Wendt FOIA request

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