December 23, 2013

Rescue Squad violates Open Records Act

Family of missing man seeks documentation of investigation

By Nita Johnson
Staff Writer

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The London-Laurel County Rescue Squad has come under fire recently for violating the Kentucky Open Records Act.

The decision from the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office was handed down on Dec. 13, stating the local agency did not release public records regarding a search for a man missing on Laurel Lake in July 2012.

On behalf of the family of Clarence Holmes,  Attorney William P. Joslin requested “any reports” regarding the search efforts. Holmes disappeared from a pontoon boat on July 3, 2012, following a storm that struck near Holly Bay Marina. The document released by the Attorney General’s Office states that Joslin’s request, dated Aug. 15, 2013, also asked for “copies of any other books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, discs, diskettes, recordings, software, or other documentation....that was created or consulted during the course of this investigation.”

According to the Attorney General report, Joslin spoke with Larry Vanhook, chief of the London-Laurel County Rescue Squad on September 3. During that conversation, Vanhook indicated he would send some of the documents by the end of the week, but was waiting on “legal clearance” to release other records. However, when Joslin had received no such documents by September 16, he allegedly sent another letter to Vanhook.

When no records still arrived, Joslin filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office that the rescue squad had violated the Open Records Act by not complying with his request.

According to Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 61,880(1), a public agency must supply a written explanation on why specific records cannot be released.  Since there is no documentation that the records were ever sent to Joslin, the Attorney General’s Office found the rescue squad to be in violation of the Open Records Act and sent a letter to the rescue squad indicating that decision.

Under the Act, the rescue squad now has 30 days to either comply with Joslin’s request and provide the requested records, or 30 days to file an appeal regarding the decision.

However, the Attorney General’s Office does not have authority to pursue any fines or penalties when such an action occurs. In fact, there are no listed penalties or fines under the Open Records Act if the records are not released.

In that event, the next course of action would be for the attorney to file a civil suit against the rescue squad, with hopes the records will be released through an order by the circuit court judge. If fault is found against the party which is “willfully withholding” records, that party could be fined as much as $25 per day until the records are released.

In an interview with The Sentinel-Echo Wednesday, Vanhook claims he did send documents to the family’s attorney that showed the days and hours that rescue squad members were on Laurel Lake searching for Holmes. He added the costs of those hours — which were monitored by the Laurel County Emergency Management office and paid by public money from the City of London and the Laurel County Fiscal Court — were also included with the documents.

“We are a resource agency,” Vanhook said. “We go out and assist the fire departments or police or emergency management. We are not the investigating agency. In this case, the U.S. Forest Service is, and I was told by the detective for the Forest Service not to release any records because this is an ongoing investigation.”

Vanhook said he was currently preparing an answer to the Attorney General’s Office regarding their decision on Open Records violation.

“I’m sure when they get my letter they will understand that I cannot release any records except what I already sent the attorney,” he added.

The subject of the controversy is Clarence Holmes, a 32-year-old Berea resident, who disappeared after a wind and rain storm on July 5, 2012. Holmes was at Holly Bay Marina on his family’s houseboat, preparing for a family gathering that weekend. He was out on a pontoon boat and actually helped other boaters secure their boats and belongings as the storm approached. His unoccupied pontoon boat was beached on a small island near the Marsh Branch boat ramp after the storm, with all his belongings still aboard the boat.

More than two weeks of searching by members of the London-Laurel County Rescue Squad, U.S. Forest Service, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, Kentucky Conservation Service, Emergency Management of Laurel County, and other rescue agencies proved fruitless. Even nearly after 18 months, Vanhook said rescue squad members still conduct a search of the area, weather permitting.

“We haven’t given up the search,” he said. “Even now, if the weather is good, we still go down and search for him. So far, we’ve just not had any luck.”