Stephen Elliott and Nashville Post parent company FW Publishing have filed a public records lawsuit against the state.
Elliott is a reporter for the Post and our sister publication the Nashville Scene who is serving as interim editor of the former. He and FW Publishing named Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Human Resources Commissioner Juan Williams in the suit, which attempts to gain access to reports by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. The firm was awarded a $3 million no-bid contract to issue reports regarding the state’s reopening as well as “government operations” and “support to the Unified Command Group.”
The reports were completed in 2020, and the Lee administration has claimed “deliberative process privilege” in keeping the findings secret. The suit argues that the public has significant interest “in knowing the entirety of the information provided to Governor Lee and the UCG/ERG (Unified Command Group/Economic Recovery Group) to assist them in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Elliott and FW Publishing are being represented by Paul McAdoo with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The suit also seeks another McKinsey report related to efficiencies in state government, also denied under the so-called deliberative process exemption. This is the second suit of its kind over the McKinsey findings. Last month, state employee and Nashvillian Thomas Wesley filed a public records lawsuit against Tennessee in an attempt to gain access to efficiency reports that were part of the McKinsey’s work. Thomas also was denied access under a “deliberative process privilege.”
Journalists and open-government advocates have long argued that no such deliberative process exemption exists under the Tennessee Public Records Act.
“These records are important to understand the State's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the State's current buyout program for State employees, and the State's spending of more than $3 million taxpayer dollars on private consultants,” says McAdoo. “In addition to seeking access to these records, this lawsuit offers the Court an opportunity to decide whether Tennessee law recognizes the deliberative process privilege, including as an exception to the Tennessee Public Records Act. Where the privilege is recognized, including at the federal level, we regularly see it abused and broadly asserted to withhold information that should be public. If recognized in Tennessee, the deliberative process privilege would be a significant impediment to fully understanding how our government operates.”
See the lawsuit in full at the link below.