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A coalition of local media organizations that filed a lawsuit on June 25 to compel the release of an audit of the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room will head to court in September.
The case is scheduled to be heard by Superior Court Judge Bradley B. Letts at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 4, in the Buncombe County Courthouse.
Filed by Carolina Public Press, the Asheville Citizen-Times, Mountain Xpress, WCQS and WLOS-TV, the suit calls on the city of Asheville and the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office to release the audit. The lawsuit argues that, under North Carolina open records law, the audit, produced by a private contractor hired by the city of Asheville, is a public record.
“The issue represents a matter of substantial public importance because it involves not only the conduct and procedures of the Asheville Police Department, but also impacts the integrity of the cases investigated by the police department,” the complaint states. View the complaint in its entirety below.
The lawsuit follows multiple unsuccessful public records requests seeking the release of the audit documents, which were completed in January 2012. The city of Asheville appropriated $175,000 for the audit, which was prompted in April 2011 after it was discovered that a substantial number of items, including drugs, prescription medication, weapons and money, were missing from the evidence room maintained by the Asheville Police Department.
“Carolina Public Press believes this document belongs in the hands of the people who purchased it — the public,” said Angie Newsome, director and editor of Carolina Public Press, the Western North Carolina investigative reporting news service that led the coalition’s formation. “We must vigilantly protect the public’s right to information because it is essential to transparent, open government.”
In May, Carolina Public Press reported that, based on interviews with council members, Asheville City Council appeared unlikely to press for the release of the report. A few days later, Asheville Police Chief William Anderson said the department would conduct a nationwide search for a new evidence-room manager, but added he had not asked to review the audit. Anderson later presented his plan to City Council during its meeting on May 22. No new details were released about the conditions of the old evidence room.
About a month later, the coalition filed suit against the city of Asheville and the Buncombe district attorney’s office to press for the release of the audit.
On July 24, Mike Wright, the manager of the auditing company BlueLine Systems & Services, presented Asheville City Council with information on what auditors found when they began inspecting in the old evidence room. During his presentation, he showed photographs of what appeared to be boxes and bags either scattered about or resting in large piles. In other photos, stacks of unfiled paperwork appeared stacked on bookshelves
At the same council meeting, Chief Anderson stressed that he needs to see the audit in order to know how best to fix the problems of the past and make sure they do not reoccur in the department’s new evidence room.
“We believe the public has a right to a full and accurate account of the department’s old evidence room, as discovered by the outside auditors who produced this report,” Newsome said. “Based on the state’s public records law, we are hopeful that the court will agree. It’s time for the city of Asheville and the DA’s office to release those details.”
The coalition is represented by Brooks Pierce, a leading media law firm based in Raleigh and representing clients across the East Coast.