Friday, April 10, 2009

Fayette County Attorney Shows His Stuff…

Thursday night after the Fayette County Commission meeting the County Attorney, Scott Bennett, came over to the press area and said he wanted to talk with the press. I didn’t catch the entire statement so I asked one of the other reporters what he’d said. The reporter indicated he wanted us to stick around so he could talk to us. We immediately “assumed” it had to do with the lawsuit filed by former County Administrator, Chris Venice.

We chatted a bit about the lawsuit, then Bennett walked over and said to meet in his office. One reporter followed immediately, I had to grab my pen and paper. As I walked into the hallway leading to Bennett’s office I overheard him talking to the first reporter about me in a tone that made my ears perk up. Hmmm, not very professional for the County’s legal spokesperson to be disparaging someone to a reporter… But it got better, or worse, depending on your point of view.

He caught my entrance out of the corner of his eye, whirled around and bluntly stated that I was not invited. At first I thought he meant only press could come, and knowing that some had problems with a “newspaper” that was strictly on-line, I nicely said that I was press.

Ah, but that wasn’t his problem.

Turns out he didn’t like some of the things I wrote back when the county was in the process of firing their long-term attorney and hiring him. Given the fact that he had sued the County on behalf of one of his friends on the Commission, and that friend was one who was part of the decision making process, I had problems with the entire process, not just Bennett.

Oh darn, there I go again. Just seems that I keep letting those pesky facts from the past get in the way of trying to be friends with the County Attorney. I bet he’s going to be mean to me again.

Yep, he was mean.

He told me in no uncertain terms that he could talk to whoever he wanted and he did not want to talk to me. He said I didn’t trust him, I wrote bad things about him and he didn’t have to talk to anyone if he didn’t want to. “So there you mean old reporter, and let me stomp my foot for emphasis, take that.” OK, OK, he didn’t say “so there”, nor did he stomp his foot, but the effect was the same.

Quite frankly, I was astonished. The more I thought about it the more amazed I was that an attorney, especially an attorney serving in a position that requires interaction with the public, didn’t know how to handle the press. Gosh, even I tread lightly with my fellow reporters. Tick ‘em off and they can get a whole lot of ink working against you and those you represent.

But then I thought back to some of the reasons I’d originally had problems with Bennett. I’m not the only member of the press on his list to snub I’d guess.

Seems that back when he worked for the city council in McDonough, he got on the wrong side of the press there, too. He advised the City Council that citizens didn’t have the right to film or record public meetings. One of those banned citizens happened to work for a local television station. Not a good choice and completely wrong from a legal standpoint to boot. The sunshine law that governs public meetings and elected officials clearly states that anyone can film or record public meetings. It doesn’t even use the typical lawyer-eeze that makes a lot of laws so difficult to understand. Knowledge of the Sunshine Law is part of lawyering 101 basics, especially if you’re working for the government. Bennett managed to end up being the focus of a TV expose as a result of the issue.

Another issue that bothered me at the time the County was considering hiring him was the fact that he had sued Fayette County reference the county’s sign ordinance. He represented a national sign company that wanted to get multiple billboards along our county roads. I would bet I’m not the only one who was not the least bit surprised when the county recently cut a deal with that same billboard company to allow billboards in our county?

When I wrote my first little blog about Bennett way back when, I started getting phone calls from people who knew him or knew of his work. I didn’t share the things I was told in subsequent blogs or op-ed pieces simply because there wasn’t any supporting documentation. I think Mr. Bennett should be relieved that I didn't share some of the information, and that I chose not to go digging further. The impression I had of Bennett was not very favorable as a result of the calls from his “past” associates.

Now that Bennett has had his little hissy fit, we have a problem, or two or three. See, Mr. Bennett has put me, and the County Commission, in a difficult position. Instead of asking and getting his canned responses to questions, I’m going to have to ask his boss. If that doesn’t work then I’m going to have to go the old open records request route and/or get most of my information from the opposing viewpoints.

Bennett is in a public position that requires him to interact with the press and the public. In his position he actually has a higher accountability to the public than those in private practice. My tax dollars, along with yours, are paying his salary. Based on some of the news that was reported about him previously, if he stops talking to everyone in the press who writes things he doesn’t like there aren’t going to be very many left to talk with sooner or later.

I had pretty much put the past in the past, which I know is easier to do when you’re on the delivering side. But, while my impression of his abilities hasn’t improved after watching him in action over the past year plus, he is in the office and it’s necessary for me to deal with him politely. If he hadn’t pitched his little snit-fit I would never have brought up the past, nor would I now want to pay more attention to answering questions that have popped into my mind and been dismissed over the past year or so. He kinda forced the issue with his highly unprofessional actions.

What questions you may wonder, have popped into my mind over the past few years about Bennett? What does a full-time attorney do five days a week to earn his salary? Especially when an outside attorney has to be hired for litigation outside his expertise. How much money is being spent on legal expenses? What kind of lawsuits, aside from the one by Chris Venice, have been filed against the County this past year? What is included in his new contract? What kind of reputation has he gained working with the County? Oh, I could go on… but the list is growing longer as I think about him. Rather a shame he’s now pinged himself to the forefront of my mind. I have so many things on my list of things to do and dealing with answers to those questions wasn’t even on page ten of the list.

I mentioned Bennett’s behavior to Jack Krakeel, the County Administrator and Jack Smith, the County Chairman. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to do so if I hadn’t been after a bit of info regarding the lawsuit being filed by Chris Venice. It was kind of hard not to mention his actions when they both referred me to Bennett as the spokesperson. I don’t think it’s going to affect his job at all.

As most of my readers know I’d been taking a break from the County Commission. There’s a point where you can film and write and film and write and if no one else seems to care about what their elected officials are doing, if you have absolutely no effect on their actions, you just have to say enough and move on to other things. Bennett’s actions last night put a bee in my bonnet and now I have all the Commission meetings back on my calendar.

Guess I’m going to be seeing a lot of Mr. Bennett again.

1 comment:

jd said...

You go, Girl!