Faulkner County judge releases emails after suit filed

Rival’s supporter seeks law violation

CONWAY -- County Judge Jim Baker on Thursday released emails requested under the state's public-records law to a supporter of his political opponent, a day after a lawsuit challenged the Faulkner County official's refusal to turn over the emails.

Baker, a Democrat, is seeking re-election. County Tax Assessor Damon Edwards, a Republican, opposes him.

On Wednesday, Edwards supporter Bob Gregory filed a lawsuit in circuit court after Baker would not release emails sent and received from the county judge's government-owned email account despite a request under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Baker did, however, release his emails to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after it submitted its own public-records request.

Gregory's attorney, Joey McCutchen of Fort Smith, confirmed receipt of the emails Thursday but said Gregory still wants a court order agreed upon by both parties and signed by the judge. The case is before Judge Chris Carnahan.

The lawsuit seeks an order to release the emails as well as legal and court costs.

"We want something on the record," McCutchen said. "Mr. Gregory in good faith tried to get these documents. ... He [Baker] intentionally violated our Freedom of Information Act and thumbed his nose at a citizen."

McCutchen said he also plans to seek a criminal investigation of the matter. Violation of the state's public-records law is a misdemeanor.

David Hogue, the county attorney, represents Baker, who was sued in his "official capacity."

Asked why Baker had declined to release the emails earlier, Hogue said, "I don't know."

Baker said Thursday that he hopes "the email problem doesn't overwhelm the 400 miles of road improvement I've done in the past few years."

Gregory sought the emails after he learned of one that Baker sent on Oct. 24 to numerous people in response to an email advising him that a water infrastructure measure had been signed into federal law. The measure included an initiative that addresses modernizing such infrastructure, especially in rural areas.

In his reply from his government-owned email account, Baker wrote, "This is great, right now I am trying to get votes for re elect to help on these issues. Please contact all you can to go vote,......I need it."

State law prohibits public officials from using their government-owned email accounts for their campaigns.

Gregory's lawsuit said that after he didn't get the requested documents, he talked with Hogue. According to Gregory, "Hogue ... stated that [Baker] refused to turn over the materials requested by [Gregory]. Neither [Baker] and nor any representatives of Faulkner County have given any justification for refusing to release the requested documents."

The Democrat-Gazette also requested Edwards' public emails and has received them.

State Desk on 11/02/2018