Bad public policy?

Published 11:04 am Sunday, February 25, 2007

By Staff
An anonymous letter that was the catalyst for the State Bureau of Investigation’s probe into what some folks call Chickengate is still a mystery. But it shouldn’t be.
It’s a public record. But it’s a public record that has been lost.
The letter was sent to the attorney general’s office several months ago, and its contents — whatever they may be — were enough to make the SBI look into a May 2006 meeting between commissioners’ Chairman Jay McRoy, Commissioner Robert Cayton, then-school board Chairman Bryant Hardison and school board member F. Mac Hodges. The site of the meeting — King Chicken restaurant — has garnered the investigation its name on the street.
The investigating parties won’t release the anonymous letter because the investigation is ongoing. And they aren’t under any legal obligation to release the correspondence once the case is closed, according to Amanda Martin, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association.
Forever a mystery? Maybe.
But there’s more to the puzzle.
The writer, whoever he or she is, made the letter a public record when he or she sent a copy of it to Gov. Mike Easley’s office. Easley is named as a recipient of a copy of the letter in a resolution Beaufort County commissioners passed in December.
Thus, the anonymous letter, by virtue of being correspondence sent to the governor office, should fall under the public-records law. And it would, probably, if the governor’s office could find it.
When the Daily News requested a copy of the letter in the hours after commissioners passed that resolution, the governor’s staff looked for it. And looked some more.
But it didn’t turn up — because it was an anonymous letter. And the governor’s office doesn’t track anonymous letters. It didn’t in December and it didn’t as of last week.
Martin said the notion of Easley’s office not keeping up with letters just because they’re anonymous “strikes me as implausible … or as bad public policy.” She suggested we contact the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources to get the state’s rules on proper archiving of anonymous letters.
That call resulted in a spokesman’s message that let us know the governor’s office didn’t catalog anonymous letters and that we should contact Artis. Been there; done that.
We know the governor’s policy; what we wanted was to understand if there are guidelines in place from the state’s archives’ office. We’re still waiting to find out.
For curiosity’s sake, we contacted Sen. Marc Basnight’s office to see what happens to anonymous letters sent there. Beaufort County is in the Democrat’s senatorial district.
Maybe Easley’s office receives a ton of anonymous letters annually. Maybe a whole lot more than the Senate Pro Tempore does. And maybe cataloging all of them just isn’t feasible.
But one would think — and hope — someone on the governor’s staff would take notice of a letter that alleges criminal activity and public corruption, regardless of the writer’s anonymity.