The Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, a secretive nonprofit that advises local government officials on criminal justice issues, is acting like a government agency and as such, its records should be open to the public, a local journalist and a national criminal justice news outlet contend in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The suit was filed in Shelby County Court by Wendi C. Thomas, founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and The Marshall Project, an independent nonprofit news outlet based in New York.
Lawyers for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Memphis law firm Adams and Reese argued the commission, whose board includes Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich and other public officials, is the “functional equivalent” of a government agency and thus subject to public disclosure laws.
“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.”
Nonprofits — unlike government agencies — are generally not required by law to share financial records or other internal documents. The lawsuit 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, the legal director of the Reporters Committee.
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 filed by Thomas on behalf of The Marshall Project for details of the donations as well as other documents.
“As a longtime journalist in Memphis, I understand the importance of open records to accountability journalism,” Thomas said in a statement. “I am glad to help The Marshall Project pursue this story by filing public records requests and assisting with the reporting.
“Open records are in the best interest of a democratic society. The lawsuit filed today is meant to benefit all journalists and by extension, the public.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.