Monday, January 30, 2017

Prosecutor shuts down access to records related to fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Wildfire along US 441 near Gatlinburg on Nov. 28
(Knoxville News-Sentinel photo by Jessica Tezak)
Tennessee officials are refusing to honor open-records requests about last year's devastating fire at Gatlinburg, claiming it could harm the case against two juveniles charged with arson, Don Jacobs reports for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn sent a letter to media outlets Dec. 15 asking them to use that reason "to explain why nothing more would be forthcoming as he investigated the aggravated arson charges filed Dec. 7 against the boys, ages 15 and 17," Jacobs writes.

"Consequently, otherwise public records in any way connected to the investigation of the fires that started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and five days later swept into Gatlinburg were deemed off limits. When public agencies refused to release information or records, each would cite Dunn's request, which is not a court order," Jacobs reports.

"Dunn apparently has the authority to issue the blanket gag order because of a state Supreme Court decision issued in 2015 in the Vanderbilt University rape case, according to Richard L. Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association," Jacobs writes. "Any challenge to a denial of information, Hollow said, would have to go before a judge. Dunn is under no obligation to explain why he doesn't want some records, such as after-action reports on a fire department's performance, kept from public disclosure. Such an explanation, Hollow said, could provide insight into Dunn's strategy for prosecuting the cases."

The fire burned 17,000 acres, killed 14 people, injured nearly 150 others and destroyed 2,174 structures and affected almost 300 more.

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