State sued for 2000 file on fired trooper recruit

A records requester filed a lawsuit Wednesday after the state's attorney general opposed the release of records related to the firing of a current public official from an Arkansas State Police job 15 years ago.

Russ Racop, who writes a blog criticizing the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency, filed a request with the state police in August asking for the investigation report on Boyce Hamlet, who was fired as a trooper recruit in 2000.

Hamlet is now the Alcoholic Beverage Control enforcement director. He was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March.

Shortly after the appointment, Racop said he learned Hamlet had been fired as a trooper recruit after cheating on an exam and lying about it, according to the lawsuit he filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

Hamlet said Wednesday morning that he would release a statement in response to the lawsuit, but he had not done so by the end of business hours.

Last month, Racop requested the investigation records that led to Hamlet's termination from the state police.

State police spokesman Bill Sadler said his agency believes the records are public and had planned to release them. But in accordance with the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, he had to first notify Hamlet that the documents were being sought.

Hamlet requested an attorney general's opinion, as is his right under the Freedom of Information Act.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge opined Aug. 31 that while the records are employee evaluation records that would typically be released under the law, there is no compelling public interest and therefore they should not be released. Sadler said his agency would follow the opinion.

In deciding whether there is an interest in disclosure, Rutledge considered the nature of the infraction that led to the firing, whether a public controversy related to the agency existed, and the employee's position within the agency.

Since Hamlet was low-ranking at the time, not yet a certified law enforcement officer, and his infraction did not involve misuse of state money or resources, or interactions with the public, Rutledge wrote that she does not believe there is an interest in the records being released.

"Further, to the extent that there was a serious breach of public trust, the significant passage of time since the breach (i.e. 15 years) reduces any interest that may have existed in these records," Rutledge wrote.

In his lawsuit, Racop disagreed. He said courts have consistently said the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act is to be construed liberally in favor of disclosure.

Records "could in and of themselves create a public controversy, so it is antithetical to the [FOIA] to hide behind the lack of a current controversy to deny a request," the lawsuit said.

Racop submitted exhibits that he said show Hamlet omitted his brief employment with state police from subsequent job applications, including with the office of the prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit.

Revelation of the fact that Hamlet was fired might have prevented his employment at other state and governmental agencies, Racop said.

"Hamlet's former position as a state trooper in which he admittedly cheated, lied and breached the public trust and in his current position as ABC Enforcement Director under the cloud of his demonstrated lack of integrity, honesty and credibility supports that the public has a compelling interest in knowing of such behavior," the lawsuit said.

A spokesman for Hutchinson said the governor considered Hamlet's years of experience in law enforcement when appointing him to his current post and that he is the "right fit" for enforcement director.

"As to his AG opinion request: There are protections for state employees on the release of their personnel file. It is Mr. Hamlet's prerogative to exercise that right," said J.R. Davis, Hutchinson's communications director.

Larry Walther, the head of the state Department of Finance and Administration which oversees Alcoholic Beverage Control, has not responded to requests for comment. Before the lawsuit, Racop filed a complaint against Hamlet with the finance agency.

The finance agency's attorney, Joel DiPippa, said the department investigated Racop's allegations, and the investigation did not result in a suspension or termination.

Metro on 09/10/2015

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