16-month wait for records ends

After 16 months and a series of court filings, North Augusta has released the disciplinary records of its officers who've been posted at public schools.


Three of the officers have no disciplinary record, and 10 do. Their infractions range from innocuous to salacious, from sloppiness to dishonesty with supervisors, but none involved children.

"We can't imagine why the city fought so hard to keep them secret," said Dennis Sodomka, the executive editor of The Augusta Chronicle. "If these files had been made public in a timely fashion everyone would have been better served."

The newspaper first requested the records in October 2005 while looking into how campus safety officers were being hired in the Augusta area. Earlier that month, Richmond County campus officer Charles Hutto - fired after grabbing a female student by the throat - tried to jump off a highway bridge while in uniform. The Chronicle found that the Board of Education hired Mr. Hutto despite his record with his previous employer, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office.

He had once referred to an inmate by a racial slur and chased him with a broom. Mr. Hutto had also been found by the chief deputy sitting in his patrol car with a gun aimed at his temple.

Requests for background records on campus officers were filed with Richmond County and Columbia County schools, the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, the Aiken Department of Public Safety and the North Augusta Department of Public Safety.

Only North Augusta did not comply.

But the newspaper kept pressing. North Augusta filed a complaint against The Chronicle in May 2006, citing a state law exempting governments from releasing "information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute unreasonable invasion of personal privacy."

Last week, Aiken County 2nd Judicial Circuit Judge Jack Early ordered the documents released.

"The original purpose of our records search was to determine if officers in other schools had a history of problems similar to Mr. Hutto's," Mr. Sodomka said. "We found none."

Linda Pearce Edwards, the employment attorney for Giginilliat, Savitz & Bettis in Columbia, who handled the matter for North Augusta, said the city wasn't trying to stall the newspaper by declining to release the documents. Rather, she was trying to protect the city from being sued for invasion of privacy. Even though a 2004 case, Burton v. York County Sheriff's Department, deemed the records could be released, an employee could claim the contents were false or defamatory, she said.

By filing the complaint and having a judge order that the documents be turned over, the city has a strong layer of protection, Ms. Edwards said.

The city's legal bill for the maneuver will be no more than $500, she said.

"It was a lot cheaper than having to defend a lawsuit if an employee sued," Ms. Edwards said.

Mr. Sodomka said the York County and North Augusta cases make it clear that disciplinary files are public records.

"There is no reason the public should be kept from seeing important records of people on public payrolls," he said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.