Attorney: Franklin has not complied with MPA Strategies’ FOIA request

BLYTHEWOOD – Mayor Bryan Franklin has continued to publicly criticize two town council members for, according to Franklin, not complying with an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request submitted by The County Chronicle.

The request is for documents from all council members and the mayor that pertain to MPA Strategies dating back to Oct. 1, 2020, including documents from all their personal devices.

But it is Franklin who is not complying with another FOIA submitted by MPA Strategies, according to attorney Joseph Dickey, who represents MPA Strategies. 

Council voted 3-2 on Feb. 22, 2021, to contract with MPA Strategies for promotional and grant writing services for the town.

Following a contentious lead-up to the Feb. 22, vote, Donald Brock, Sloan Griffin and Larry Griffin voted to contract with MPA Strategies. Voting against were Franklin and Councilman Eddie Baughman, both of whom expressed their desire to award the contract to the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce instead of MPA Strategies.

On April 15, almost two months after council voted to hire the firm and authorized Franklin and Town Attorney Shannon Burnett to negotiate a contract between the town and MPA Strategies, the contract negotiation dragged on with little apparent progress toward being finalized and signed.

In addition, certain rumors involving Ashley Hunter, CEO of MPA Strategies, emerged, and Dickey submitted an FOIA to the Town for certain documents on Franklin’s social media. The day after that FOIA was submitted, Franklin signed the contract with MPA Strategies.

On April 20, the Town hired Nexsen Pruet attorney David Black as outside attorney to handle legal issues with MPA Strategies. About that time council was asked to add $40,000 to the town’s budget for outside legal counsel. That amount was raised to $60,000 and approved.

Black’s areas of experience includes business disputes, litigation, government contracts and electronic discovery and information management.

On April 23, Black emailed Ashley Hunter, owner and CEO of MPA Strategies, demanding that she preserve certain documents, including social media and electronic data in the event it was needed for discovery.

Black notified Dickey, also on April 23, that, “In terms of the electronic data you seek in relation to email and text, please also be advised that the Town’s outside vendor TCDI charges $500.00 to pull email and text messaging from a device.” That charge would apply to each of the mayor’s submitted devices.

Black also acknowledged to MPA Strategies’ attorney that, “The Town has advised that it is in possession of responsive records as you describe in your request. In compliance with the Act, the Town will provide you with records which are non-exempt thereunder within thirty (30) days of the date of this letter. The Town is working diligently to provide the records you request and is making every effort to organize these records such that they are available for your review well in advance of the Act’s thirty (30) day deadline.”

That 30-day deadline date, May 24, has passed.

On April 29, the Country Chronicle also filed an FOIA request for not just Franklin’s documents but all council members’ documents referencing MPA Strategies and their phone logs. At that point, the Town announced that it would no longer be charging the $500 fee for the outside vendor’s TCDI service.

There is no requirement in the statute that responses must be made through a TCDI service, however, Franklin has suggested that council members are not in compliance unless they submit their devices through the service which can rapidly copy any and all documents from a device not just the documents requested.  The FOIA allows for responding to FOI requests by coping documents or sending them electronically to the requestor.

During the May 24, 2021, town council meeting, Franklin suggested more than once, but did not say outright, that the two councilmen – Brock and Sloan Griffin – might not be in compliance with the FOIA because they had not yet submitted the requested documents to town hall via the TCDI method. He further questioned whether they might be hiding something since they had not yet turned in their documents to town hall.

As Franklin continued to criticize the two councilmen during the meeting for implied wrong doing, he repeated that he, Baughman and Larry Griffin had already complied.

“My stuff’s turned in. Just waiting on the other two (Brock and Sloan Griffin),” Franklin said.

But, according to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, the two councilmen, like their counterparts Baughman and Larry Griffin as well as Franklin, have a full 30 days to comply, and that 30 days does not end until June 25, according to Brock and Sloan Griffin. While the FOIA statute urges governments to not wait the full 30 days to respond, the June 25 deadline is more than three weeks away. There is no other deadline stipulated by the statute.

Both Brock and Sloan Griffin have stated that they intend to comply fully and are collecting their requested documents for submission.

For all his speculation and accusations that Brock and Sloan Griffin may not be complying with the Country Chronicle’s FOIA, Franklin has not complied with MPA Strategies’ April 15 FOIA request, Dickey said in an email to The Voice on June 1.

“We have not received any responsive documents from the Town since submitting our [April 15] FOIA request,” Dickey said.

The documents requested from Franklin by MPA Strategies are the same documents that Franklin said in the May 24 town council meeting that he has ‘turned in’ in response to The Country Chronicle’s FOIA request. MPA’s attorney said he has not received those documents.

Not to be left out of knowing what is in the documents requested by both MPA Strategies and The County Chronicle, The Voice submitted an FOIA request to town hall on May 28 requesting copies of all the same documents requested by MPA Strategies and The Country Chronicle.

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