For the first time since its founding more than 20 years ago, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission will make public information about its donors and some of its operations, thanks to the settlement agreement of the 2019 public records lawsuit filed against the secretive nonprofit.
As part of the agreement, the Crime Commission, which has played an outsized role in setting criminal justice policy, will also release records sought through public records requests filed by journalist Wendi C. Thomas, founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, in her role as a freelance reporter with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom focused on criminal justice.
According to the agreement, the Crime Commission will make public the following:
- The identity of its donors, in donation amount brackets, updated no less than once a year
- All grants made or received by the commission, updated no less than quarterly
- Board meeting and executive board meeting agendas, at least 48 hours before the meeting takes place, and MSCC board and executive board meeting minutes, no later than seven days after a meeting.
Both Thomas and The Marshall Project were the named plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Memphis law firm Adams and Reese LLP.
“Before this case, the Crime Commission was accountable to no one beyond their own closed doors and the big donors who they insisted on keeping anonymous,” said Lucian T. Pera, partner at Adams and Reese, in a press release.
“Because of my clients’ persistence, Memphians now know more about the Crime Commission and its donors than we ever would have otherwise.”
Lawyers had argued the commission — whose 50-member board includes Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, other public officials and community leaders — is the “functional equivalent” of a government agency and thus subject to public disclosure laws.
The crime commission maintained it is fully independent of the government and thus entitled to keep its activities secret.
“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 2018 interview with The Marshall Project. “And no, I am not going to tell you who they are.”
Months later, Gibbons reversed himself: After initially refusing to answer any questions about donations, the commission released in October 2018 what officials said was a list of Memphis-based companies and nonprofits, including FedEx and International Paper, which contributed toward a $6.1 million police retention grant, funded by donations solicited by Strickland.
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, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change.