A local journalist, joined by a national news outlet, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission (MSCC), contending that its records should be open to the public.
The suit was filed in Shelby County Chancery Court by Wendi Thomas, founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, along with leaders from The Marshall Project, a New York-based nonprofit news organization.
According to the petitioners, the MSCC denied multiple records requests, including requests for the details surrounding a $6.1 million police retention grant the commission announced in October.
Thomas and the other petitioners also requested information including how the commission operates, what its policies are, and details of its interactions with the Memphis Police Department and others.
The suits says, in part, that because the MSCC is “the functional equivalent of a government agency, it’s records are, therefore, public records subject to the access requirements of the Public Records Act.”
Since the nonprofit Memphis Shelby Crime Commission functions like a government agency, its records should be public. MSCC disagrees so today, @rcfp @MarshallProj and I sued. #PuttingThePublicInPublicSafety #FOIA #journalism #publicrecords pic.twitter.com/SCIyz5J1Xg— Wendi C. Thomas (@wendi_c_thomas) February 6, 2019
However, the crime commission maintains that it does not have to adhere to the Tennessee Public Records Act and that its records are not public.
In one response to Thomas’ request for records, MSCC president Bill Gibbons responded: “As we have stated in response to precious similar requests, the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission is a 501(c)(3) private nonprofit entity and is not subject to the Tennessee Public Records Act.”
Additionally, the suit argues that because one-third of the MSCC’s current leadership, including Gibbons, is employed by a public entity, the commission itself is a public body.
The petitioners are asking the court to order MSCC to appear before the court within 10 days to make its case.
Additionally, Thomas and The Marshall Project staff are asking that the documents previously requested are released immediately, their attorneys fees be covered, and that the court finds that the MSCC “willfully refused to grant access to public records.”
Chairman of the MSCC board of dircetors Ben Adams said in a statement Thursday that the commission is not subject to the public records act: “The Crime Commission is a non-profit corporation funded privately and with no governmental authority. It is not subject to the public records act.”