Charlotte city officials said Thursday that federal prosecutors have told the city not to release public records related to the case of former Mayor Patrick Cannon, who was arrested on federal corruption charges last month.
The federal government has subpoenaed all documents related to Cannon since 2010, an “extremely broad” request that has the city mining servers to produce the requested data. Now, the U.S. attorney’s office says that any public records related to the case can’t be released until prosecutors have a 60-day period to review them and see whether they will interfere with the investigation.
“Our desire is not to thwart the N.C. Public Records Act, rather to protect the investigation pending review of the materials,” wrote U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins in a letter to Rick Glaser, the city’s outside attorney. “Preserving the right to a fair trial necessarily entails some curtailment of the information that may be disseminated about a party prior to trial.”
Under state law, officials’ communications and city records are generally considered open records, subject to public release and inspection. Exceptions include some criminal investigative reports and detailed personnel records. Numerous media outlets, including the Observer, have requested emails and other documents from Charlotte related to the Cannon case.
Cannon resigned last month, after he was arrested and charged with taking $48,000 in bribes and gifts in exchange for promising to help undercover agents posing as developers with zoning, permitting and other issues. The federal investigation, which stemmed from a long-running sting, is ongoing.
Tompkins’ letter said her request to hold records covers “any information which could interfere with a fair trial, prejudice the due administration of justice, or which could implicate potentially innocent persons.”
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said in a memo to the media Thursday that the city has a team of people working to gather and review the “vast range of documents” covered by the federal subpoena.
“We ask for your patience and cooperation,” wrote Carlee. He said the city will work to fulfill all requests for records unrelated to Cannon.
Amanda Martin, general counsel to the N.C. Press Association, questioned whether a criminal investigation could prevent the release of public documents, citing the state public records statutes.
“Routine documents or emails that aren’t subjected to any specific privilege would still be public even though the feds are still investigating,” Martin said.
“The way our law works is it is a public record if it meets a definition of a public record,” she said. “It has to be turned over unless there is a specific statutory exemption.”