The Marshall Project today filed suit to force the disclosure of documents related to the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, a secretive nonprofit agency that advises local government officials in Shelby County, Tennessee, on criminal justice issues and has been a conduit for corporate donations to the police.
Lawyers for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Memphis law firm Adams and Reese LLP argued that the commission, whose board includes the mayor, the district attorney and other public officials, is the “functional equivalent” of a government agency and thus subject to public disclosure laws.
The commission, which acknowledges conveying $6.1 million so far from companies based in Memphis and other organizations to pay police retention bonuses, insisted that it is fully independent of the government and thus entitled to keep its activities secret. After initially refusing to answer any questions about the donations, the commission revealed the identities of donors but not the amounts they gave or any related documents.
“Every donor to this has requested to remain anonymous because they don’t want to be perceived, in any way, as currying favor with the police,” said Bill Gibbons, the commission’s president and former county district attorney, during a May interview with The Marshall Project. “And no, I am not going to tell you who they are.”
The Marshall Project is an independent nonprofit news outlet that covers the criminal justice system.
Nonprofits—unlike government agencies—are generally not required by law to share financial records or other internal documents. The lawsuit, filed in Shelby County Chancery Court, argues that the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, which in its most recent annual report listed 24 of its 50 board members as public-sector employees, is not protected from public scrutiny.
“The public has a right to know how the commission affects the lives of people in Memphis and the surrounding communities, and we hope this action will shed light on the governmental functions the commission performs,” said Katie Townsend who is the legal director of the Reporters Committee.
“The MSCC is the functional equivalent of a government agency,” the petition says. “Its records, are, therefore, public records subject to the access requirements” of Tennessee's Public Records Act.
The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The commission released in October what it said was a list of Memphis-based companies and nonprofits, including FedEx and International Paper, that contributed towards the $6.1 million police retention grant. The commission has denied multiple records requests from The Marshall Project for details of the donations as well as requests for a copy of a commission-funded analysis of the Memphis Police Department, overseen by former New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. The Marshall Project has also requested the commission’s past tax filings, written communications between commission staff, business leaders and elected officials and internal memos that relate to criminal justice legislation and policing.