In this week’s print edition, we reported on the abrupt departure of Secretary of State Mark Martin’s executive assistant Teresa Belew. Belew resigned from her $50,000 post, one of Martin’s top management jobs, on April 6 but neither Martin’s office nor Belew would say why.
But Belew’s resignation letter and an email addressed to Martin’s Chief Deputy Doug Matayo, obtained by the Arkansas Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says she resigned over concerns that “certain aspects related to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are not being properly followed by the Secretary of State’s Office.”
Belew said she was told to delete an email that was part of the response to an extensive FOI request by the Times. Any person who “negligently violates” the FOI can be found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.
The FOIA request in question was made by Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times. Brantley made the first of a series of requests on March, 18, asking for all communication, including email, between Martin and members of his staff.
That request was later modified because of the costs associated with printing. According to Belew’s email to Matayo: “When I started the project, I soon realized that one of the emails addressed to Secretary Martin would be immediately controversial. I immediately reported this to Alice [Stewart, deputy secretary of public affairs]. I was told to delete a certain email (which I did not) I was told that the email would be shredded if it fell into the scope of the FOIA request. That same night I discussed this with AJ [Kelly, deputy secretary of elections, legal and business and commercial services] and was told not to delete anything but also not to worry because the most important thing was to delay the delivery of the FOIA until after budgets were approved.”
Stewart says the email was not included in the office’s initial response to the FOIA request because it did not fall within the time period requested by the Times. “You did later request the remainder of the documents and we provided them,” Stewart said in an email late this afternoon. “She never asked about the discrepancy- otherwise we could have cleared this up in her mind.” Stewart says she also did not ask Belew to delete an email, but a calendar reminder that did not fall within the scope of the request. “[Those] were pulled out because they were not emails. Once again- she didn’t ask or raise an issue about this — otherwise we could have cleared this up in her mind.”
Brantley says, however, that the remainder of the documents initially requested didn’t cover all information related to information available about a $54,000 consulting contract with the Soderquist Center. Many documents were exchanged in the office about that contract during the period covered by the Times’ FOI request and were provided only after separate FOI requests specifically for that contract and for e-mails sent not just on official secretary of state accounts, but also on personal e-mail accounts. The latter are also covered by the FOI, the Supreme Court has ruled, when official business is discussed. The secretary of state’s office apparently believed, when the first broad request was made, that it did not have to supply those e-mails.
Contrary to Stewart’s claims that Belew never voiced her concerns, Belew writes in her email that she expressed her concerns about FOIA compliance with Matayo. “I shared this issue with you, Doug and while you indicated that deleting the email should not happen, so far as I know you did not address the core issue… The email policy distributed yesterday by Cecil [Davis, director of information technology] further indicates to me that this issue will be an ongoing one.”
State agencies are required to respond to requests completely and immediately, an exception is made for documents that are in “active use,” which must be turned over within three days of the initial request.
Martin denies Belew’s accusations. The secretary of state’s office released this statement this afternoon:
“I’m sad to lose Teresa Belew and wish her, and her family, well. I understand all too well the stress of her leadership position in the office. I’m disappointed with her written comments about compliance with FOIA. I have never had the opportunity to hear her concerns, as she did not express to me- nor to anyone else in our office- her specific concerns. In an ideal situation, she would have expressed those concerns to me before any FOIA response was delivered. The office has attempted to contact Teresa Belew to find out what her specific concerns are; but she has not yet responded to our inquiries. My office, our Executive team, and our employees remain committed to following the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. Governor Rockefeller instituted the FOIA for good reason, and I hope we never forget the legacy he left us. The office continues to re-examine all of our policies and procedures, and to update policies and procedures on an ongoing basis.”
We called Belew to ask for further comment. She said her email and resignation letter would speak for themselves. Since the issue began due to a request made by Brantley, I asked him for a comment as well.
“I know little about the internal workings of the secretary of state’s office,” Brantley said. “Ultimately, the office provided extensive responses to various Freedom of Information Act requests and it required a great deal of staff time to do this. But my correspondence with the office will reflect that I believed in the early going that some pieces of information were missing or that longer time was taken than was necessary to supply some relatively simple things — including a consulting contract with the Soderquist Center, employment information on a staff member who formerly worked in Mark Martin’s campaign and a spread sheet on Board of Apportionment costs. I can’t say if this was a result of confusion or willful resistance to compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Belew has made serious accusations. They deserve an independent evaluation.”
Belew, 53, is the former executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She was hired at the beginning of Martin’s tenure and her photo appeared among five top deputies of the office until last weekend.