News-Journal hires lawyer (Originally published May 8, 2024)

(This story was originally published May 8, 2024)

By Catharin Shepard • Editor • The News-Journal has hired a lawyer to represent the newspaper in its public records lawsuit against Hoke County.

With support from the North Carolina Press Association (NCPA), the newspaper has retained attorney Mike Tadych of the Stevens, Martin, Vaughn and Tadych law firm, based out of Raleigh. The News-Journal is also in contact with a staff attorney with the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and has reached out to the Duke University School of Law First Amendment Clinic for possible, additional legal support if needed.

The News-Journal is a member of the NCPA. The newspaper applied for matching grant funds from the NCPA Foundation to help pay for the lawsuit. A number of generous donors in Hoke County have also made contributions to the newspaper’s legal fund.

The News-Journal initially filed the lawsuit in Hoke County Superior Court without a lawyer. The lawsuit – which is a civil case, not a criminal matter – seeks to have the court order the county to turn over public records the News-Journal has requested. The lawsuit also seeks to recoup attorney’s fees and costs from the county.

County commissioners have said that the county plans to turn over the records after their attorneys review them, and is also reviewing how Hoke handles public records requests.

“While there is no mandated legal procedure to request copies of public records, Hoke County is reviewing its public records process including designation of a recipient to receive all requests and coordination with the County Attorney to obtain legal-staff review for attorney-client privilege, attorney work product, and other legally mandated exceptions,” a county statement said.

The News-Journal asked for records of money given to Hoke County commissioners, financial documents related to design and construction of the James A. Leach Aquatic and Recreation Center (JALARC) and the new Hoke Area Transit Service (HATS) building, among several other requests. The record requests were made over a period of eight months. County Commissioner Allen Thomas called the combined requests the largest in the county’s history.

The county board last week voted to hire attorney Jonathan Charleston of the Charleston Group law firm in Fayetteville to represent the county in the matter. Charleston filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the News-Journal’s lawsuit on the grounds that News-Journal owner and publisher Jessica Hendrix Brown is not a lawyer.

“A Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit has been filed by the County’s lawyers on the grounds that the lawsuit was filed by Jessica Hendrix Brown – owner of The News-Journal – who is not authorized to practice law in North Carolina. N.C. Gen Stat. § 84-4 prohibits persons other than members of the North Carolina State Bar from practicing law and filing lawsuits,” a statement posted to the county’s website said.

The News-Journal’s attorney will take up the case from here.

The county additionally released a statement:

“On behalf of the Board of Commissioners, Chairman James A. Leach has previously stated that ‘Hoke County will continue its commitment to transparency, thoroughness, and being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.’ Chairman Leach also emphasized Hoke County’s commitment to keeping its citizens fully informed regarding the County’s business.  He stated that ‘without exception, the policy of Hoke County is to allow public access to the county’s business records and activities.’”

The county is having its attorneys review the records before turning them over to the newspaper.

“The County Attorney and the County’s retained counsel are working diligently to review documents produced by County staff in response to The News-Journal’s public records request to ensure that such documents are not legally exempt from disclosure. After the legal review is completed, the requested documents will be made available to the requestor.”

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