ANC 5B-04 Commissioner Issued Subpoena In Ongoing FOIA Case

We have been following an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case over the recording of the  April 2013 ANC 5B-04 meeting hosted by Commissioner Carolyn Steptoe. There has been some conjecture about what exactly happened at the meeting. Many residents claim that Commissioner Steptoe was rude and dismissive to her constituents while Commissioner Steptoe claimed that meeting attendees were disrespectful and mob-like towards her, and that is what prompted her to shut down the meeting. There hasn’t been an ANC 5B-04 meeting since, and at the February 2014 ANC 5B meeting Commissioner Steptoe announced that she will no longer hold SMD meetings because they “cause a ruckus among some people”. Other than hearsay, the only documentation of what actually occurred is an audio recording Commissioner Steptoe made during the meeting. Realizing this recording could provide clarity to the situation, Brookland resident Conor Crimmins and the Brookland Bridge Blog submitted FOIA requests for the recording, both of which were denied by ANC 5B. Mr. Crimmins decided to pursue the issue and took it court. The result, this summary judgment, required Commissioner Steptoe to release the recording despite her contention that the recording was made with her personal device and therefore is her possession. At that point, in early November 2013, those of us following this case thought it was pretty much over.

It turns out that Commissioner Steptoe has yet to turn the recording over, and in fact, it may have been destroyed. In early December 2013 ANC 5B asked for the court for a reconsideration; arguing that ANC 5B should not be held responsible for the recording, that the recording is unavailable, and the judge should reverse his opinion (you can see Defendant ANC 5B’s Reply to Plaintiff’s Opposition To Its Motion for Reconsideration here).  In response, the court denied the Reconsideration in mid December and re-asserted that the defendant (ANC 5B) must make the recording available (you can see the court’s Order on Motion for Reconsideration here). 

On January 30th, 2014, I attended a court hearing in this case, in hopes of securing a copy of the recording to share with our readers. At that hearing the attorney for ANC 5B stated that the recording is unavailable and that the ANC has taken all reasonable steps to produce it unsuccessfully. It was unclear what happened to the recording, other than it could not be retrieved from the recorder. The attorney said they even obtained an estimate from a forensics expert who said it could cost $1,400 – $1,800 to retrieve the files from the recorder. Further, the attorney asserted, taxpayers should not be responsible to pay this fee through ANC 5B. Upon further questioning from the judge about the ANC’s responsibility and inability to produce the recording, the ANC attorney explained that ANC 5B doesn’t have control or authority over Commissioner Steptoe, and that she should be held responsible for the recording, not ANC 5B. The Judge concluded that it is “unseemly that someone destroys documents that are public…there has to be a consequence to that”, and added that there needs to be an evidentiary hearing at which Commissioner Steptoe testifies about what happened to the recording. The judge also noted that Commissioner Steptoe would be held accountable for the recording, not ANC 5B. The attorney for ANC 5B asserted that Commissioner Steptoe is not technically an employee and therefore they cannot compel her to appear at a court date. The judge therefore agreed that Commissioner Steptoe be served with a subpoena and appear at the next hearing  coming up on Wednesday, March 19th. We contacted the plaintiff in this case, Conor Crimmins, and he confirmed to us that Commissioner Steptoe was served with the subpoena on Wednesday, February 26th, 2014.

We will continue to follow this case as it winds through the court process.

11 thoughts on “ANC 5B-04 Commissioner Issued Subpoena In Ongoing FOIA Case”

  1. I’ve only been loosely following this issue but this is really amazing. I hope that she be held accountable as it appears she will. Thank you for the straight forward presentation of what transpired.

    Mat

  2. Thank you for continuing to cover this story. I’m grateful that Mr. Crimmins continued to pursue this and was able to obtain the favorable ruling from a judge. Hopefully, the ruling will help to deter other elected officials from refusing to release public records in the future. I also hope that Ms. Steptoe is held accountable for her actions. However, it is disturbing that the AG continues to defend this case, especially when it could have been handled differently when the legal opinion was issued. I don’t like the fact that taxpayer money is being used to continue to provide a defense to Ms. Steptoe for her egregious disregard of the public records laws.

  3. Steptoe must be held accountable. The fact that she has fought so hard to withhold the recording is proof that it reflects poorly on her. If Steptoe had indeed been confronted by an unruly mob, she would have released that recording long ago.

    I hope that the Court fines or jails Steptoe for her disregard of public records.

  4. To me, the issue with the infamous April 2013 meeting (which I attended) was never whether some restaurant did or did not get a liquor license, or who was rude to whom. It is how the whole question of the public record was handled afterward. This is fundamentally a question of transparency and accountability of elected officials, and of personal integrity.

    In this instance, a DC elected official (as she stressed at the beginning of the meeting) held an public meeting to discuss matters of concern to her constituents, and made a point of announcing to everyone who attended the meeting that she was recording the proceedings. Afterward, once a public controversy arose over what occurred at that meeting, the official involved refused to make the recording available for the public to draw their own conclusions about who said what.

    An official interested in setting the record straight would have immediately agreed to the public requests to make the recoding available. Instead, citing dubious legal arguments, the official fought tooth and nail to prevent the recording from being released, at considerable expense to the taxpayer, and was repeatedly, decisively defeated at every step in the process. And her filings made clear she would have continued to fight in the courts if she had had standing to do so.

    This was occurring in parallel with her efforts to prevent her constituents from having access to materials that the ANC was submitting (ostensibly) on their behalf in its public filing to ABRA to protest a restaurant’s liquor license application. Here again, she fought public efforts to access information detailing her activities every step of the way.

    Ms Steptoe lost every single one of these actions to prevent the release of information to her constituents, and the language of the court decisions was frequently unsparing in its critiques of her conduct. But losing the battle in court does not mean the information was actually released. Now it emerges that the evidence that was in her possession, that she fought so hard to protect, no longer exists.

    Suffice it to say the citizens of Ward 5 — and the District — deserve better from their elected officials. And the best way to get that is to elect better officials.

  5. The Superior Court’s public docket page shows that a hearing took place today (March 19th). It sounds as though they are attempting to determine whether the recording was deleted and, if so, whether forensic experts can recover it from the recorder. I do hope that any costs for forensic electronics experts comes out of Ms. Steptoe’s pockets and not from any tax dollars. There is no reason that public dollars need to be poured down the drain defending or rectifying her ridiculous actions. All of this could have been so easily avoided.

    Here’s relevant text from the Court’s docket:

    The Court heard from the parties on Plaintiff’s Motion to Show Cause and for Sanctions. Testimony of witnesses Commissioner Carolyn Steptoe and OAG Chief Information Officer Lawrence Nelson commenced and were heard in full…. The Court will defer ruling on Plaintiff’s Motion to Show Cause and for Sanctions at this time to provide Plaintiff an opportunity to (1) determine whether the recording from the meeting in question is currently on Commissioner Steptoe’s recorder, and (2) to hire a technician to further evaluate Commissioner Steptoe’s RCA recorder. Parties to meet at [ANC 5B] Attorney Shermineh Jones’s office today to listen to the beginning of each of the files on Commissioner Steptoe’s RCA recorder to determine whether the recording of the meeting in question is on the recorder. At the adjournment of today’s meeting, Commissioner Steptoe will deliver her RCA recorder to Judge O’Keefe’s chambers. Plaintiff will locate a technician or tech company to assess the recorder’s log of files. Plaintiff will provide Attorney Jones the name of the technician or tech company prior to hiring to complete the service. Plaintiff to file a status report regarding the technician’s findings by close of business on Wednesday, 4/2/14. Commissioner Steptoe’s recorder to be returned to the Commissioner once the technician’s evaluation is completed.

  6. Hello – It is true that I was served with a witness subpoena by former 5B04 commissioner Vaughn Bennett on behalf of former 5A07 commissioner, Don Padou (now Esq.) & Cmr. Padou’s client, plaintiff, Connor Crimmins at ANC 5B’s Feb 26 regular monhtly meeting. I was served shortly before our official meeting convened. As one who respects authority and of course complies with judicial orders and rulings, I am very pleased to have conveyed the facts during yesterday’s hearing. I also voluntarily offered my personal tape recorder to the court and later provided it to the judge for forensic analysis.

    Meanwhile, it is my understanding that the Solictior General has already filed Notice of Appeal on behalf of ANC 5B challenging this judge’s Order as relates to the appropriate applicability of Fed/DC FOIA government records statutes in this matter – I believe that is it. Nonetheless, we await the court’s decisions.

    1. More appeals, more taxpayer dollars. It is irrelevant whether FOIA applies (though the court has been pretty clear all along that it does) — a public official interested in setting the record straight would have released the recording when her constituents first asked in April 2013.

    2. “As one who respects authority and of course complies with judicial orders and rulings” – Commissioner Carolyn Steptoe

      Really? Then how is it that the Court issued an Order for you to produce a copy of the recording to the Plaintiff on November 1st and you just had to be subpoenaed to come and testify as to why you HAVE NOT COMPLIED WITH THE COURT’S ORDER?

      Stop twisting the facts, Carolyn, you thought you were above the law — the Court’s Order shows that you were not. But, instead of heeding the Court’s Order to produce a copy of the recording, you are now claiming that it has magically gone missing from your recorder and you haven’t the fanciest of ideas how that might have been.

      Old school DC Politics at work. Wow.

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