While city officials secretly lurk on discussion boards keeping files on who posts what,
Cookeville's pattern is denial and destruction of its own records

Editor of The Putnam Pit

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (March 15, 2003) – With corruption as with disease, patterns of occurrence can often tell an observer more about the cause than in-depth investigation into a single incident.

This similarity came to mind as I opened a package from City Manager Jim Shipley today and read the top line of the label on a 120-minute video tape: “Copy of Eric Hall Tape 3-4-03.” But on the next line, it read: “1-1-03.” Stamped on the bottom of the label was “Cookeville Police Department.” I at first took this to mean that on March 4, 2003, Cookeville police copied the tape that was in the patrol car of Police Officer Eric Hall on Jan. 1, 2003 – the date Tennessee Highway Patrol and city police joined forces to terrorize an innocent family along the side of Interstate 40. Hall went on to execute the Smoak family dog, as his THP colleagues had the passers-by handcuffed and kneeling, by blowing off the animal’s head in an execution-style shot gun killing that was captured by the THP on video.

But this rationalization was shattered when I looked at the side of the tape, where “2-4-03” was handwritten on another label.

I would have taken it as the reuse of an old tape for the copying of the original, or “authentic” tape, except this was the second tape I had received from Shipley in response to my request. At first, Shipley said there was no tape, but shown that Hall had already reported he had turned one in, Shipley was forced to choose between calling Hall a liar and producing a copy. I refer to the tape in Hall’s car as the “authentic” tape, not because I believe the city would ever produce the genuine article, but to distinguish it from the versions produced in response to my request to obtain a copy. At any rate, Shipley produced a tape, but an altered one. The first tape produced by the city in response to a request for public records was actually an edited version of the tape that Shipley now acknowledges was in Hall’s car that day.

I wrote and told Shipley that I asked for a complete copy of the entire “authentic” tape, to which he replied:

“I viewed the original tape and I viewed the copy that was made for you. There were three segments on each tape. The first stop is in a shopping center and I don't think that entire stop was on your copy but was not related to your original request. The second segment, which is the Smoak stop begins at video counter number 1712 and lasts for just a few seconds.

“You will recall both Cookeville officers stated in their interviews that they turned off their recorders to prevent interference with THP's. The third stop is, I believe at a service station, which is also unrelated to your request."

You notice that although Shipley says that the “authentic” tape contained a record of Hall’s activities at another stop the same day before the officer went on to terrorize the Smoak family, Shipley doesn’t “think that entire stop was on your copy but was not related to your original request.”

OK, so Mr. Shipley at first denies there is a tape, then when challenged he sends a tape that is not a copy of the “authentic” tape, and when challenged he admits he sent a tape that was not a “copy” of the authentic tape in Hall’s car, but an edited or incomplete version of the Hall tape.

Now, today I get this tape with different dates and markings so that no intelligent conclusion may be drawn from it.

Do you see the similarity? Every response is meant to deny meaningful information to the public, and then finally to produce a document that no serious person would place credence in.

Over the years, my experience of dragging the Shipley gang into court for altering or denying information to the public has made one thing clear: while seeming to be accommodating, the city withholds truthful information, legal documents and public records until it is challenged and it is evident officials are lying and would face punishment unless they comply. Officials then retreat only as much as necessary to respond to a piece of the challenge while still refusing to comply until taken to court.

Let’s take some other examples of this Cookeville phenomenon.

In 1997, The Putnam Pit asked to inspect Cookeville’s government computers to inspect so-called cookie files.

According to the federal complaint in the case:

“Plaintiff Davidian on August 12 (1997) asked Defendant, Jim Shipley, for so-called ‘cookie’ files that would show whether city computers had been browsing to Internet sites not consistent with government employment, such as adult-oriented pornography sites or ones advocating white supremacy or Satanism or worse, The Putnam Pit on-line. . . .

“The Plaintiff also wanted to inspect the records recorded on each of the city computers to see which city computers accessed Plaintiff's Internet site when a clear intent to charge the city for each access to the Putnam Pit web page was announced but the city refused to pay.

“Defendant, Jim Shipley, at first demanded a $328 deposit to pay someone to inspect the computers, then announced as a pretext to prevent further investigation and access into public records that even with payment access would be denied pending a determination of whether the files were public. Although state law does not remove ‘cookie’ files from the public realm, Defendants willfully refused to provide inspection of the files.

“On October 1, 1997, the Plaintiffs wrote to Defendant Jim Shipley, seeking access to public records concerning ‘cookie files’ and police department parking tickets.

“ On October 2, 1997, via mail, Defendant Jim Shipley, stated in contravention of T.C.A. Section 10-7-503 requiring that public records be available during business hours, that nobody would be available to provide access to police data and that the Plaintiff would have to reschedule. Further. he stated that Plaintiff would not be allowed to inspect the ‘cookie’ files maintained on city computers.

“These records are not confidential or privileged but are public records to which any Tennessee citizen has the right to access according to Title 10. Part 7 of the Tennessee Code Annotated.

“The Defendants knew or should have known the records are public, and be willfully refused to disclose the records to the Plaintiffs.”

Here again, Shipley at first seemingly offers to make “cookie” records available, but sets what he probably thought was a cost to access them beyond our willingness to pay. Just to be sure, he says that even if we are willing to pay, the records may not be public. Later, Shipley said that he had determined that the cookie files were not public records. Not satisfied still that a judge might later rule that the records are public, he finally states that anyway, the city doesn’t retain the files so even if we pay, even if they are public, we can’t have them because they don’t exist.

See the pattern?

Look at what happens when you want computer records from the city.

Steve Corder, the city's computer manager, testified under oath that one of Shipley's top aides ordered him to run from the building when the Putnam Pit came looking for public records, which by law are to be open during regular business hours.

Let’s look at the video tape that recently turned up “blank” in the police evidence room. According to the Herald-Citizen publication:

“One of two police video tapes which figure in an upcoming murder trial here and which recently turned up blank has now been restored, according to the Cookeville Police Department.

“The tapes, made by police car cameras, showed a felony stop and arrest of murder suspect John Curtis Walker just after he had left a Cookeville bar where a city employee, Dale Randolph, had been fatally shot.

“Recently, Walker's attorney filed a motion in court complaining about the Police Department's "failure to preserve" evidence in the case.

“The motion said two police car video tapes showing the arrest last year were now blank.

“The attorney sought unsuccessfully to have the murder charge dismissed due to the tape problem.

“A judge denied that motion, saying the evidence the defense wished to secure from the tape could be supplied through testimony of the officers who made the arrest.

“Now, however, one of the two tapes has been restored, police said today.”

When Debbie Harris went to the City Council meeting on Feb. 6, 2003, she asked why the city had hacked the Putnam Pit’s web site – an incident that resulted in a Wisconsin lawsuit.

When she later went to the city manager’s office to get a copy of the videotape of the meeting, lo and behold, there was no sound, Harris reports.

She asked for an audio recording of the meeting, and guess what? That was bad too.

The only record that remains is the city’s minutes of the meeting, which state simply:

“Ms. Debbie Harris spoke concerning internet lawsuit. Mr. Shipley & Mr. O’Mara responded to the question.”

The record does not state that Shipley and O’Mara are defendants in the case, and it does not state that the audio and video recordings of the questions and answers suddenly are not available.

When I went to the City Council to present the government with evidence that Police Chief Bob Terry was using government computers to send pornography to DA Bill Gibson, Police Captain Nathan Honeycutt and now-Councilman Ricky Shelton, the E-mail was not made part of the official record, the minutes only say there was a discussion of E-Mail (See P. 8) and -- you guessed it -- the video recording of the meeting failed. What else would have been on the tape? Former Councilman Harold Jackson trying to have Terry arrest attorney Samuel J. Harris for speaking out about the Terry incident at the televised meeting.

Meanwhile, a resident who made a request this month for public records of documents the city was secretly downloading from Cookeville discussion boards found that the city government had not lost those documents, nor were they destroyed, accidentally erased or outside the public realm. In other words, they want you to know they are monitoring YOU, but don't want you to monitor THEM.

Yet this is the public business, and it is the public record. When the officials who kill animals, terrorize families passing through town, shoot each other, hack Web sites and browse for pornography on taxpayer computers and taxpayer time say the record of their incompetence and corruption does not exist, you just have to wonder: What will happen when it is your dog? Your family? Your life?

What’s the pattern here?



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