FOIA request in No. Carolina custody battle draws national interest


WASHINGTON, August 8, 2017 – The Union County (North Carolina) Sheriff’s Office (UCSO) has something to hide regarding their arrest of Kristy Newberry-Brooks, and maybe others.

That was the unmistakable subtext of a new lawsuit filed by WBTV against the UCSO and its Sheriff, Eddie Cathey.

WBTV, of Charlotte, North Carolina, is seeking all text messages related “to public business allegedly sent and received by UCSO deputies that the station’s lawsuit alleges have been deleted,” according to a story in the Charlotte Observer.

Specifically, the station is seeking all records related to their arrest of Brooks in early 2016.

Brooks went into hiding for more than a year right before that county’s family court ruled to give her ex-boyfriend sole custody of their daughter despite her bringing forward evidence he molested her and others. An arrest warrant was issued shortly after Brooks did an interview with Nick Oschner, conducted while she was still on the run.

Brooks was initially charged with child abduction; She turned herself in shortly after the US Marshals became involved in the case.

U.S. Marshals Service inserts itself into Family Court drama.

But those charges went away shortly after her return and she now faces the far less serious charge of contempt of court; her ex-boyfriend has received sole custody of their daughter, however.

The US Marshals involvement was even more troubling since US Marshal Sean Newlin was involved not only in the Brooks case but in Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s case, where the US Marshals claimed jurisdiction because the office suggested Sandra Grazzini-Rucki was a fugitive.

But when it was revealed that the warrant for Grazzini-Rucki’s arrest was sealed making it impossible for her to be a fugitive, the US Marshals did not provide any more clarification.

Dave Oney, public affairs officer for the US Marshals, did not respond to an email for this story.

Since CDN’s story, Oschner has reported that the UCSO reached out to University of North Carolina School of Government Professor Jeff Welty for legal guidance and Welty told UCSO that they were overreaching.

“Abduction of a child might be difficult to prove because it sounds like mother did not abduct the child or induce the child to leave father. Rather, it sounds like the mother had the child at the time the new custody order came into effect and has simply kept the child,” Welty wrote of the possibility of bringing a child abduction charge.

Now Oschner and WBTV want more answers and they believe those answers may lie in the text messages of UCSO sheriff’s officers. But the UCSO has refused to turn them over.

Sandra Grazzini-Rucki convicted of hiding daughters

On March 30, 2017, the attorney, Bill McGuirt, who represents UCSO told the station that they had no text messages related to Brooks’ case.

But after the station recovered eight text messages discussing Brooks as part of a simultaneous but unrelated story, the UCSO changed its story.

“Once McGuirt retired from the sheriff’s office, another lawyer for the county wrote a lawyer for WBTV to say deputies retain text messages related to criminal investigations but delete other messages.” WBTV stated of their most recent story.

The situation has even gotten personal with McGuirt once responding to a WBTV request by saying “Nick (Oschner) would not know the truth if it bit him in the face.”

Oschner, for his part, now makes that quote part of his twitter biography.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows anyone in the public the power to demand records from any public agency.

In theory, it brings transparency but in practice, governments often stall or flat out refuse to provide the documentation.

Sharyl Attkisson, the former longtime CBS investigative reporter who now hosts her own show Full Measure, recently disclosed she was dropping the  FOIA request from October 2013, because the information, which the Department of Health and Human Services failed to produce, was no longer relevant.

“In addition to the active lawsuit I have in federal court over the intrusion into my government computers,” Attkisson said on her blog, “I have been litigating several of the many failed government responses to lawful Freedom of Information Act requests.

“I’m giving up on one of them as of this week.

“It’s my request for public material the government withheld after the disastrous launch of Obamacare in 2013 when I was reporting on the topic for CBS News. We have learned, among other things, that federal officials gave incorrect and misleading information to the public and under oath to Congress regarding serious security failures in development and testing of the national website and system, and other important topics.”

Dave Oney directed this reporter to the US Marshals FOIA department to answer certain questions regarding Sandra Grazzini-Rucki’s investigation and the FOIA department has still not executed that request.

Because text messages are a new frontier in FOIA requests, the WBTV lawsuit has drawn the interest of not only local media but national media as well.

The Columbia Journalism Review examined the lawsuit:

“This week, the situation in Union County escalated: WBTV-Charlotte sued the county sheriff and his office to try and pry loose records Ochsner seeks. Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, tells CJR he believes the TV station’s open records lawsuit for text messages is the first of its kind in the state. FOI litigation over text messages is far from common, though concerns over access to text messages are taking hold at the state level to various degrees.”

The UCSO has been mum since the lawsuit came out, including a request for comment from CDN.

Brooks said the most important thing is the safe return of her daughter.

“I’m just ready for the charge to be dismissed, my daughter to come home, and the real criminals to be put in federal prison.” Brooks said in a statement to CDN.

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