Education

Hilton Head Island High principal got heads up from county before suing to keep sheriff’s report secret

An attorney for Beaufort County tipped off a high school principal that two newspapers had requested a copy of an investigative report in which she was named and included language that set out what would be needed to keep the public documents secret and how much time she had to do it.

On May 15, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette filed the request for a Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office investigative report into allegations of misconduct by a deputy. Three days later, assistant county attorney Allison Coppage sent a letter via email to an attorney representing Hilton Head High School principal Amanda O’Nan asking the attorney to let O’Nan know the newspapers were seeking the information.

The letter goes on to explain that the county legally is required to respond within 15 business days. “Please allow this letter to serve as notice of the County’s intent to release the requested documents on June 1, 2016, absent a court instruction to the contrary,” Coppage writes.

County attorney Tom Keaveny said the heads up was not special treatment for O’Nan and that the county was not encouraging her to go to court to try to block release of the documents, a rare third-party tactic that O’Nan ended up trying.

Keaveny said “the personalities (named in the documents) played no role” in the county’s decision to inform O’Nan prior to releasing the documents. But O’Nan appears to be the only one of the four people named in the report to have been alerted. Keaveny said he was not aware of a similar letter sent to the deputy at the center of the investigation, Staff Sgt. DeJuan Holmes, or to the two residents who filed the complaint, Chris O’Nan and Karen Anderson of Hilton Head. Chris O’Nan’s attorney, however, is copied on the email to Pamela Blackshire, the family court attorney for Amanda O’Nan.

“When requests come in and they are of a very personal nature, I believe that it isn’t uncommon to notify the folks that are affected,” Keaveny said. The misconduct claim against Holmes included an allegation that he was having an affair with Amanda O’Nan. O’Nan has said her relationship with Holmes was strictly professional.

When pressed, however, for another instance in which someone had been given a heads up that a FOIA request had been made, Keaveny said he could not think of one. Asked if his office would provide the same courtesy to a person in the same circumstance if that person were not affiliated with a public agency, such as the school district, Keaveny declined to answer, calling the question “a very vague hypothetical.”

Keaveny said the county was simply providing O’Nan and her attorney “the opportunity to get involved if they so desired.”

While the state’s FOIA statute requires governments respond to information requests within 15 days, it also instructs officials to provide requested information “at a minimum ... delay to the persons seeking access.”

Sheriff’s Office documents indicate the investigation report was available for release almost immediately. But according to Coppage’s letter, the county planned to wait until June 1 to hand over the report.

When asked why the county officials did not immediately provide the documents if they were readily available, Keaveny said, “Under the FOIA act, the county government has 15 days with which to reply. That is how we keep track of FOIA replies and responses here.”

Coppage’s letter served as notice that county officials “believed that the production (of the documents sought by the newspapers) was appropriate under (FIOA),” Keaveny said. “And it gave (O’Nan’s attorney the opportunity) within the time permitted by the statute to respond — so she could object if she wanted to, or not object if she didn’t want to.”

Former South Carolina Press Association attorney Jay Bender said Coppage’s letter constituted an invitation and encouragement for “a citizen to go to court to allow the (the county and Sheriff’s Office) to disregard its obligations” under state FOIA laws.

Keaveny disputes that, saying he doesn’t believe the letter “constitutes a roadmap for anyone to do anything.”

But because the county decided to withhold the documents for two weeks and alerted O’Nan of the request, she was able to file a motion May 27 and try to block the report’s release anonymously under the pseudonym John Doe. Beaufort County Special Circuit Court Judge Marvin Dukes initially ruled that the document would be released but with all references to O’Nan and the high school redacted. After the newspapers asked for a reconsideration, Dukes ordered the full unredacted report released Aug. 9.

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act allows the public and media access to documents produced by law enforcement agencies, towns and other taxpayer-supported offices. Occasionally, the agency from which the information is sought will try to fight the release of information, but in this case it did not, making the court fight rare.

The documents related to an investigation into misconduct claims against deputy Holmes on April 27 by Chris O’Nan and Anderson, who in the report is listed as a friend of Chris O’Nan. Chris O’Nan alleged that his wife and Holmes met multiple times late at night at Hilton Head High School to facilitate an affair and that Holmes was misusing his police vehicle and equipment as part of the relationship. Anderson claimed that Holmes ran her license plate without cause. Holmes resigned when confronted with the allegations April 29 and declined to be interviewed by Sheriff’s Office investigators, according to the report authored by Special Investigator Lt. Brian Baird and dated May 4. The newspapers have been unable to reach Holmes for comment.

The newspapers do not normally write about family court cases, but this case is unusual in that allegations are being made against two public employees in unique positions of community trust. The allegations include claims that both abused their positions of trust and used public equipment and facilities while doing so.

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