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On the latest episode of Former Metropolitan Police Department Employees Reveal Internal Corruption: A former MPD public records officer is a key witness in a lawsuit claiming the department instituted an unwritten policy to delay and withhold the release of public records that could embarrass the department or its then-chief, Peter Newsham. The lawsuit filed by Amy Phillips, a D.C. public defender who is acting on her own behalf, claims that MPD’s unofficial policy applied to her and other requesters who had been critical of Newsham and/or the department.
Joining Phillips on MPD’s list of pesky requesters, according to the lawsuit, are fellow public defender Emily Barth, local T.V. reporters Eric Flack and Marina Marraco, Benjamin Douglas, with the Jewish Voice for Peace-DC Metro, ANC commissioners Denise Krepp (6B10) and Anthony Lorenzo Green (7C04), who used to be heavily involved with Black Lives Matter D.C., and the ACLU-DC, among others.
That alleged favoritism toward people who only say good things about MPD is a violation of the First Amendment, Phillips’ lawsuit claims. Between 2017 and 2020, MPD “delayed, denied, or improperly altered approximately 20 requests,” due to the chief’s policy, the according to the lawsuit.
Although Newsham left the department in 2020, the suit alleges that Chief Robert Contee is continuing the practice.
MPD typically does not comment on specific allegations in active lawsuits. A department spokesperson sent this statement via email Wednesday night:
“While we haven’t been formally served with the suit, MPD will not discuss specific allegations due to the pending litigation. We do acknowledge the serious nature of the claims. Transparency with our community partners is necessary to maintaining trust and agency accountability. A thorough review of the assertions will be completed and appropriately acted upon.”
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for D.C., grew out of a separate claim that Phillips filed in D.C. Superior Court in 2019. In that case, Phillips sued the department for its denial of records related to former Officer Sean Lojacono‘s termination. Phillips requested transcripts and other materials from Lojacono’s adverse action hearing, a public, quasi-judicial hearing where MPD officers can fight against department issued discipline. Despite the fact that Phillips and other members of the public attended the multi-day hearing, MPD denied her request, and she eventually sued them.
The case languished in the court until January, when Phillips voluntarily dismissed it. By then, she’d learned from the department’s former FOIA officer, Vendette Parker, that she’d landed on MPD’s blacklist of public records requesters.
In an affidavit attached to the complaint, Parker describes how MPD Chief Operating Officer Leeann Turner instructed her to follow “an unofficial, unwritten policy” to notify Newsham and Turner of requests from certain people and for certain information. The typical FOIA request process did not involve the chief or his office, Parker’s affidavit says.
Turner explained that Newsham had felt “blindsided” by questions from reporters and community members about records he didn’t know were released, according to Parker’s affidavit.
In line with Newsham’s unwritten policy, Parker would send him and Turner weekly emails with every FOIA request, highlighting requests from blacklisted requesters. Then on Tuesdays at 11 a.m., Parker and Turner would meet to discuss how to handle them.
In Phillips’ case, Parker denied the request, at Turner’s direction, and claimed the materials were protected under the law’s personal privacy exemption, according to her affidavit. Phillips appealed to the mayor’s office, which ruled against MPD, and she eventually received a bulk of the records she was seeking after she filed suit in local court.
The policy played out in other ways as well: Turner would direct Parker to find information about requesters in order to try and guess how they would use the public materials they’d asked for; Turner instructed Parker not to release documents related to approval for part-time work because they had been scanned into the computer crooked and therefore looked “unprofessional,” according to Parker’s affidavit; and Turner instructed Parker to ignore a request for stop-and-frisk data from Flack, a WUSA9 reporter, unless he followed up. “He did not, and the data was never produced,” the lawsuit says.
In response to another request for stop-and-frisk data from the ACLU, a group of MPD’s FOIA staffers gathered to “figure out how they could avoid producing documents,” the lawsuit says. “Turner was explicit on this point, telling Parker and others that the goal of these meetings was to frustrate the ACLU’s attempt to get these records.”
The group hatched a plan to send the ACLU an invoice so ridiculous that the organization would abandon its request. Eventually, the department provided the information but only after negotiation and significant delay, the lawsuit says.
And when Marraco, a FOX 5 reporter, filed a request for a police report detailing a mayoral staffer’s drunken altercation in the Wilson Building, Turner “consulted with the Mayor’s office and, after she did, Turner instructed Parker to redact the narrative section of the incident report before producing it.”
But Marraco also received an unredacted copy directly from the police district. She tweeted about the discrepancy: “Transparency in DC looks like this. Media requests a report re: 8 @MayorBowser staffers involved in a drunken brawl @ Wilson Building. Media gets redacted version. Anyone else: unredacted (only last names).”
Requests for information on MPD’s controversial gun recovery unit, personnel records, emails between Newsham and Turner, and records on use of force also triggered special attention, the lawsuit alleges.
“The policy was either implemented at the direction of the Chief of Police, or (without limitation) he acquiesced in its continued operation after receiving many emails specifically implementing the policy and personally discussing it on several occasions,” the lawsuit claims.
Parker retired in 2020 and says in her affidavit that she did not report the disparate treatment because she feared retaliation from Newsham. He had demoted her from commander to inspector after she spoke up about a separate incident, her affidavit says, without going into more detail.
Parker left MPD before Contee took over as chief, but based on information from her former colleagues, “Contee has not ended or suspended the policy,” the lawsuit claims. That Contee would want to protect information that could embarrass the department is fitting with his previous statements. In 2018, Contee said in a sworn statement in a separate lawsuit that publicly identifying officers with tarnished credibility could humiliate them and prevent them from finding second jobs. Contee’s statement was filed by AG Karl Racine‘s office in an effort to keep a list of dishonest officers from the public.
Phillips is asking a judge to declare MPD’s FOIA practices unconstitutional and to order the department to stop discriminating against public record requesters who are critical of the police. She’s also asking for $1 in damages, as well as attorney’s fees.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Benjamin Douglas worked for the Anti-Defamation League. Douglas filed FOIA requests on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace-DC Metro. The article has been corrected.