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June 13, 2021

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Judge: Clark County violated Public Records Act

$35,000 in fines to be paid to attorney over delay in release of documents

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:

An attorney who waited nearly two years to receive documents he requested from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office will get a hefty payout after a judge found that the county violated the Public Records Act.

The county faces more than $35,000 in fines to Neil Anderson, an attorney with Vancouver Defenders who sued Clark County after sheriff’s reports he requested in August 2012 weren’t fully released until September 2014. A superior court judge found that the sheriff’s office had acted in “gross negligence” in the case.

Greg Ferguson, Anderson’s attorney, said his client was seeking evidence for a bar complaint against Jeffrey Holmes, a former deputy county prosecutor who made headlines in 2012 when he was charged with patronizing a prostitute. Holmes entered into a diversion agreement for the misdemeanor, and the charges were later dropped as part of that agreement.

“He needed this information to support some of the allegations that would prove there were some ethical violations going on at the time,” Ferguson said.

Holmes was a deputy prosecutor for Clark County from 2006 to 2012 and continues to practice law in Vancouver.

“I had concerns that he had been treated far more favorably than the average citizen,” Anderson wrote in a declaration. “Especially in light of his position of public trust as prosecutor trying domestic violence cases.”

The county provided Anderson with records in four installments after he made his request in 2012, according to court records. A fourth and heavily redacted installment, however, was delayed until February 2013, three weeks after Anderson sued to force the sheriff’s office to produce the records, according to a memorandum filed by Ferguson.

The sheriff’s office argued in its initial redaction log that those documents contained personal information that would represent an invasion of Holmes’ privacy if they were released. It wasn’t until September 2014 that the sheriff’s office reversed course and released that piece to Anderson without redactions.

“One of those pieces had some fairly salacious type details in it about (Holmes),” said Chief Steve Shea, who oversees records for the sheriff’s office. “There was a delay because he had the right to seek an injunction.”

But Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis’ court order says there was no sign that Holmes or the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed a protective order to block the reports from being released, and the sheriff’s office did not offer any more legal reason to withhold the remaining records. Furthermore, according to the order, the redacted material was not covered by the Public Records Act’s right of privacy exemption.

The judge did not find the sheriff’s office had acted in bad faith, as Ferguson and Anderson accused the county of, but that the personal relationship between county officials shows the county’s “noncompliance was caused by more than mere negligence.”

“The agency’s actions were grossly negligent, and reckless with regard to the rights of the public to access these materials,” Lewis’ order says.

Lewis found the county failed to comply with the Public Records Act for 591 days, and ordered Clark County to pay $60 per day for a total penalty of $35,460, according to the order.

Lewis will present his judgement in Superior Court on Friday. The county may have to pay more to cover Anderson’s attorney fees, and another court hearing is scheduled later this month to address that.

Columbian Education Reporter
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