Raleigh, N.C. — At the request of the McCrory administration, the North Carolina appeals court has temporarily delayed testimony from top state communication officials in a media lawsuit over access to public records.
A coalition including WRAL News parent Capitol Broadcasting Co., The News & Observer and advocacy groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center sued the administration last summer over claims state agencies "regularly and repeatedly" violated the state's public records law since Gov. Pat McCrory took office in 2013. The Governor's Office has dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous and has maintained the administration is a "champion of transparency."
[Full disclosure: Public Records Reporter Tyler Dukes has been involved in mediation in this lawsuit.]
After earlier rulings allowing the case to proceed, Superior Court Judge John Craig this week denied a motion by McCrory's attorneys to delay the depositions of four top public information officers at the Governor's Office and other state agencies. That included the sworn testimony of McCrory Communications Director Josh Ellis, scheduled for Thursday morning.
But shortly after Craig's ruling Wednesday, administration attorneys moved quickly to delay the depositions again, this time with the Court of Appeals. Until the appeals court rules on that motion, state staffers won't have to show up for deposition.
"Judge Craig, the special Superior Court Judge assigned to this case by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, has now said on at least three separate occasions that the depositions of four public information officers for the state should move forward," Mike Tadych, an attorney representing the coalition, said in a statement. "It's clear that the defendants don't want them to testify, however, it’s not clear why."
Ellis did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
North Carolina's public records law requires government agencies from the state to the local level to release requested documents "as promptly as possible," unless a specific exemption exists in the law.
But in the original filing, plaintiffs listed more than a dozen examples where state officials delayed the release of records – sometimes for more than a year – or provided "false or unreasonable estimates" of fees and charges for producing them.
Attorneys for McCrory and his cabinet agencies have argued the court should dismiss the suit because agencies have already produced records in the cases the coalition cited.