With two months to go before the Little Rock mayoral election, there’s a dizzying amount of news swirling around City Hall, so I’m playing catch up on the latest Freedom of Information Act find from Jimmie Cavin, the Conway-based self-styled government watchdog. He’s one of a trio of FOIA warriors who have long been a thorn in the side of Mayor Frank Scott Jr.
Scott branded Cavin’s attacks as politically motivated last month on Facebook. That’s fair criticism; Cavin has written warmly about Scott’s strongest opponent, Steve Landers.
Over the weekend, Cavin posted Aug. 9 footage from a security camera at the Centre at University Park, where the Little Rock Board of Directors has been temporarily holding its meetings. The footage captures Kendra Pruitt, Scott’s chief of staff, and spokesman Aaron Sadler having an off-the-record conversation with Mitch McCoy, an investigative reporter for Fox 16/KARK 4. This was the same day Scott announced changes in how the city handles FOIA requests.
The clip is more than 40 minutes. It’s difficult or impossible to hear for the first few minutes, and then the video stretches on and on. Unless you closely follow city politics or have a deep interest in journalism, you probably won’t make it very far. Off the record means different things to different people, but generally journalists consider it a mutually agreed upon conversation that can’t be reported on without permission from the other party.
Cavin framed it as Pruitt “berating” McCoy. I’m not sure it delivers on that account. She was clearly upset with McCoy and suggested that he was injecting his opinion into reporting and slanting stories to make them more salacious. But that’s hardly the key takeaway: Like so many other issues swirling around City Hall, it’s related to perception: In this case, the idea that Scott’s administration isn’t transparent.
There’s a lot of important context: Russ Racop, one of those frequent critics of the mayor who files voluminous FOIA requests with the city, dug up an important story in July. It was about, as Max Brantley reported at the time, “Little Rock police officers’ pursuit in March 2021, sometimes at high speeds, of an SUV occupied by three teens, including a 12-year-old driver who didn’t have permission to use the family vehicle. It ended in a crash that killed one [14-year-old] passenger and injured the driver and another passenger.
“One officer didn’t follow an order not to chase the vehicle driven. Another violated policy by trying to “box in” the vehicle at a stop, a dangerous maneuver. The chase resumed, at speeds up to 102 mph, before a crash in Saline County.”
The LRPD didn’t acknowledge the officers’ role in the fatal crash until Racop started writing about it and other media followed his reporting. McCoy, apparently working on a follow-up to determine if there was any kind of cover-up following the death of the 14-year-old, requested phone records of several in the LRPD command staff, as well as phone records for Mayor Scott and several of his top lieutenants. The police complied with McCoy’s request, but the city told him it had no records.
Pruitt was upset with McCoy over his story from Aug. 4, where he relayed the above facts and interviewed Cavin, who complained about the administration’s long delays in responding to requests. (Prosecutor Larry Jegley later sent the city a letter telling it to follow the law.)
In the video, Pruitt insists that the Scott administration is doing all that’s required under the state Freedom of Information Act. One key provision of the law says that a custodian of a record isn’t required to create a record. Pruitt tells McCoy in the video that accessing the city’s account with Verizon and downloading records amounts to creating a record.
She’s a lawyer; I’m not. Maybe that is technically true. But the Little Rock Police Department provided the phone records Cavin requested. Asking why the mayor’s office decided not to is a fair question. Pruitt’s reasoning here fails the smell test and adds to a widespread perception that the Scott administration is secretive and unforthcoming. I don’t know how Verizon maintains records and whether it’s as simple as you might think to access it and download the relevant periods, but it’s the principle that’s more important: Pruitt, in the video, is effectively saying that the city is going to follow the law narrowly, not expansively.
A big source of criticism over the city’s handling of FOIA requests has been over slow response times. I’m certain the mountain of requests has been a burden on staff, and one can imagine concern about how a more expansive reading of the law might add to that workload. But when you’re already fighting the perception that you’re secretive and the police department has royally screwed up, you’ve got to err on the side of sunlight.
PS: Little Rock Proud, an anonymous Twitter user who tweets constantly about city politics (and is absolutely not Arkansas Times food editor Rhett Brinkley, don’t listen to those bizarre rumors), has amassed a sizable following and is an unwavering supporter of Scott’s. This anonymous tweeter maligned McCoy, repeatedly alleging that he tipped off Cavin about the conversation, which led Cavin to FOIA the video. That wasn’t the case, both Cavin and McCoy told me.
From McCoy: “I confirm I did not tip Jimmie Cavin off to the video. The conversation was intended to be private and I was unaware security cameras were present. It would be unethical to comment any further as it was off-the-record.”