By Natalie Johnson / email@example.com
KELSO — In a decision reached through a compromise between the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office and former Superior Court Nelson Hunt at a hearing Thursday, a Cowlitz County judge ordered the immediate release of documents requested by The Chronicle regarding sexual harassment claims made against Hunt and a subsequent financial settlement by Lewis County.
Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Michael Evans ordered the records to be released with redactions requested by Hunt, who wrote in his request for an injunction that the selections include medical information.
The Chronicle received the records at about 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon. (Check chronline.com for an updated story this evening.)
“It may very well be that after looking at the documents in their redacted forms and seeing how little there is I’m asking to be redacted that perhaps the newspaper will change its mind in spending all the money they’re talking about and say, ‘Okay we’re satisfied with this,’” Hunt said at the hearing.
Evans will review the original documents under seal in his chambers to prepare for a ruling on whether to release them without Hunt’s requested redactions.
The next hearing on the issue is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday, March 2 in Cowlitz County. Lewis County’s three judges recused themselves in the case.
The Chronicle made a public records request Dec. 21 for documents related to a complaint and settlement made against Hunt, in which former Lewis County Drug Court Manager Jennifer Soper-Baker alleged nine years of sexual harassment.
Hunt filed a request for an injunction last week barring the release of the documents without redacting several sections that he says contain protected medical information.
In a conversation with The Chronicle after Thursday’s hearing, Hunt said he couldn’t comment on why he decided to file the request for an injunction.
“I can’t really answer that without telling you what it’s about,” he said.
He did say the sections he’s requesting be held back from release involve the mention of a third party, who he said would be unfairly damaged by the sections in question.
The parties encountered a situation Thursday making it difficult for Evans to properly review Hunt’s request — if he reviewed the unredacted documents in court, they would become public record, defeating the purpose of Hunt’s lawsuit.
Hunt and Lewis County Deputy Prosecutor Eric Eisenberg agreed that the judge would have to review the documents under seal.
However, the county’s deadline — as outlined by the law — for releasing documents requested by The Chronicle was Thursday, the same day as the hearing.
Hunt proposed a temporary restraining order barring the release of the documents in their entirety. Eisenberg suggested a compromise.
“It’s my understanding Judge Hunt has made a narrow claim that particular portions of the document should be redacted before its release,” he said. “It seems to me your honor could protect his interests and also allow for the public to get as much as they can get, which is quite a lot … if the temporary order was that the redacted document should be released.”
Evans concluded the hearing by saying that he believed Hunt made a good case that the redactions were appropriate, given his right to privacy. However, Evans said he would review the documents and make his ruling later.
“The public has a right to know things happening with public employees,” he said. “Journalists have a vital role in unearthing things that are of concern to the public.”
Evans also ruled Thursday to add The Chronicle as a defendant in the case, after receiving a motion to do so from Lewis County.
“As a matter of very practical fact, because Lewis County does not have a strong interest in the disclosure of the records Lewis County simply doesn’t want to be the sole person who has the duty to argue that,” Eisenberg said.
Hunt spoke out against adding The Chronicle as a defendant, saying it could defeat the purpose of this request for the injunction.
“We’re trying to keep from the newspaper the very information they might have access to,” he said.
Evans said adding The Chronicle as a defendant would not give it access to the records.
Chronicle Editor Eric Schwartz spoke out against the motion as well, saying the threat of being included in a lawsuit has the potential of discouraging public records request.
“I wonder if it was a member of the public if we would be here,” he said.