A missing audio recording could end up costing the District government tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and lead to criminal charges against a Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, according to a new court ruling.
To understand how a simple Freedom of Information Act request spun out of control, let’s begin with the byzantine politics of Brookland liquor licenses (yay). In May 2013, ANC 5B protested a liquor license application for Brookland’s Finest, an as-yet-unopened restaurant located on Jackson Street NE, even though a majority of the nearby residents supported the license. The opposition to the license included ANC commissioner Carolyn Steptoe, who previously earned some notoriety for protesting another development by painting signs on the front her house.
Brookland residents Conor Crimmins filed a FOIA request for documents related to the protest and a recording of an ANC meeting that Steptoe had created on her own recording device. Instead of handing over the files, though, the ANC fought the case all the way to court. Steptoe, who argued that the recording couldn’t be obtained through an open records request because it was her own property, eventually handed over the recorder after Superior Court Judge Michael O’Keefe ordered her to do so.
By then, though, the meeting recording had disappeared from the recorder. An audio expert was able to recover the file and discovered that it had been manually deleted. With Steptoe saying she hadn’t lent the recorder to anyone, the ANC commissioner appeared to have deleted it herself. “Based upon this evidence, the Court concludes that more likely than not, Commissioner Steptoe deleted the file subject to the FOIA request in order to frustrate attempts to obtain it,” O’Keefe writes in an opinion issued this month.
Steptoe, who insists on her innocence and tells LL via email that the ruling is “a personal affront to my character,” could face charges. In his order, O’Keefe writes that he’s contacted the District’s Office of the Attorney General and U.S. Attorney’s Office to consider pursuing a case.
The ANC—-and as a result, District taxpayers—-will foot Crimmins’ legal bills. Don Padou, Crimmins’ lawyer, says that his bill ran to around $60,000.
Even after spending nearly a year on the case, though, Padou isn’t sure why Steptoe fought so hard to protect the recording, which turned out to be pretty banal.
“You get into these FOIA cases and think they’re working so hard to protect this document, there must be something good in it,” Padou says. “And more often than not it’s just stubbornness.”
Recorder photo by Shutterstock