- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—NEW ALBANY — The city has the discretion to release the full disciplinary record of fired New Albany Police Officer Laura Schook and is not required to provide the documents by law, Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt stated in an advisory opinion issued Monday at the request of the News and Tribune.

Schook was fired in May for conduct unbecoming an officer based on allegations she brought against the department dating back to 2010. Schook accused fellow officers of ghost employment and failing to provide her with backup on service calls, and she alleged the department withheld promotions from her based on her allegations.

She was initially fired by the New Albany Merit Commission in December after almost 20 years on the job. Schook appealed the ruling, but it was upheld by the commission in May. The city has declined to release any reports related to the termination beyond a findings of fact required by state law.

In response to Schook’s claims, the city requested the Indiana State Police investigate the matter, and a private firm was hired to conduct an examination of the department. The ISP report allegedly showed no evidence to back Schook’s allegations, nor did the second investigation conducted by the firm HR Integrity.

Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson declined last year to bring criminal charges against the officers who were accused by Schook. Though permitted to release the records, the Floyd County Prosecutor’s office and the ISP declined requests by the News and Tribune to inspect the state police report citing investigatory exemptions in state law.

Citing attorney-client privilege, Shane Gibson, an attorney with the city, also declined to open Schook’s disciplinary file for public inspection, or to provide a copy of the HR Integrity report last month.

The merit commission did provide in June a findings of fact report to satisfy public access requirements, as the hearing was conducted in executive session. The report referenced the ISP investigation, and other factors in the decision to fire Schook, but the state police and HR Integrity reports weren’t included.

On June 12, the News and Tribune filed a formal complaint against the city for not releasing the records. In his opinion issued Monday, Britt stated the city isn’t required to release all of Schook’s personnel records.

“To the extent a document with a satisfactory factual basis exists, it should be released,” Britt wrote in the opinion. “The release of the entirety of ‘disciplinary file’, however, is at the discretion” of the city.

Last year, Schook filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, against the city, Gibson stated in his response letter to Britt. Schook also announced her intentions to sue the city, he continued.

The city hired a law firm, Kightlinger and Gray, to represent New Albany in the case. The law firm in turn hired Integrity HR, which conducted the private report. The report is protected under the attorney work statutory provision to the open access law, Gibson stated.

Britt sided with Gibson in his opinion, as Schook did file a second EEOC claim against the city on June 25. Federal court records show Schook filed a legal case against former NAPD Chief Sherri Knight, current Chief Todd Bailey, the NAPD and Integrity HR claiming job discrimination.

State law only requires a “factual basis” for disciplinary action be released, yet the Access to Public Records Act doesn’t define what such a document must contain. Past public access counselor opinions have stated “that a short, cursory statement as to why the disciplinary action was taken was sufficient,” Britt wrote.

At the end of his opinion, Britt said he does not “believe a short, cursory statement is always sufficient to satisfy the General Assembly’s intention to make the factual basis of discipline known to the public.”

“There is a balance between the public’s right to know how their representative governments handle personnel matters and the individual privacy rights of public employees,” Britt said.

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(c)2015 The Evening News and The Tribune (Jeffersonville, Ind.)

Visit The Evening News and The Tribune (Jeffersonville, Ind.) at newsandtribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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