A former Georgia Perimeter College student journalist filed a lawsuit today against the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia for failing to produce public records concerning a $25 million budget shortfall that occurred at Georgia Perimeter College (“GPC”) in 2012.
The budget shortfall was first disclosed on May 7, 2012 and resulted in the layoff of 282 GPC employees and the dismissal of the president, Anthony Tricolli. Shortly thereafter, David Schick, then Editor-in-Chief of the GPC student newspaper, The Collegian, filed Open Records Act requests with GPC and the Board of Regents concerning the budget shortfall and the layoffs.
Mr. Schick, who is now an Atlanta-based freelance journalist and blogger, filed the lawsuit today in Fulton County Superior Court seeking an injunction directing the University System to comply with the Georgia Open Records Act. According to the lawsuit,1 the University System has not produced all the records Mr. Schick has requested and has instead engaged in numerous delaying tactics.
“The public deserves to know how so much money could have gone ‘missing’ from the budget and how it could go undetected for such a long period in time,” says Mr. Schick. “The buck stops with the Board of Regents and the records I requested could go a long way towards revealing what officials knew and when they knew it. These are open records and the public has a right to know.”
In July 2012, Mr. Schick filed two separate requests, one with GPC officials and one with the Board of Regents, requesting various e-mails, memos, and other correspondence regarding the budget shortfall at GPC. Neither the college nor the Board of Regents has promptly responded to Mr. Schick’s request as required by law.
The University System initially demanded Mr. Schick pay $2,963.39 to receive the records, a cost which Mr. Schick was able to debunk by presenting the sworn affidavit of a data- management expert. The lawsuit further charges that the University System claimed it was entitled to withhold key documents because of an ongoing “investigation,” but Mr. Schick’s lawyer asserts that no such exemption was applicable in this case and the records should have been promptly provided.
“Unfortunately, officials at both the Board of Regents and Georgia Perimeter College have used all manner of tactics to discourage my client and delay his receipt of these requested records,” says Daniel Levitas, an attorney with the Suwanee-based law firm of Burdine and Brown, who is representing Mr. Schick pro-bono at the request of the Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”), a non-profit press-rights group based in Arlington, Virginia.
After Mr. Schick was forced to obtain legal counsel in an effort to negotiate with the University System, he made multiple fruitless trips to University System headquarters where he received incomplete responses to his request. For its part, GPC has still not produced any documents more than 10 months after Mr. Schick’s initial request and has refused to budge from demanding $927.99 to honor his request. “This is an exorbitant and illegal fee and should be reduced,” says Mr. Levitas.
Mr. Schick said that he’s grown tired of the “excuses and foot-dragging.”
“I continue to pursue these records because I do not want to be just another journalist who reported on a major story without any meaningful follow up. The ‘special audit review’ produced by the Board of Regents never fully explained what happened and how the college could amass an initial $16 million dollar, later turned into $25 million dollar, deficit. GPC is a public institution funded by Georgia taxpayers and student tuition. We have a right to know,” said Mr. Schick, who now attends Georgia State University.
The SPLC, whose mission is to provide legal information and advocacy in support of student journalists, helped Schick bargain down the University System’s initial price quote of $2,963.39. The Board of Regents ultimately acknowledged it could fulfill Mr. Schick’s request for one-tenth of that cost, $291, but when it came time to actually produce the records, University System officials continued to withhold documents, prompting Mr. Schick to file suit.
“What’s going on in Georgia is a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country, with state universities contemptuously defying their public disclosure responsibilities through foot- dragging and astronomical fees,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC. “The public has an absolute right to know — while it is going on, not a year later — how one of its colleges ran up a seven-figure budget deficit. This is the 21st century, and emails are searchable and retrievable within a matter of seconds, not months.”