Attorneys: CCSD breaking law by not answering public records request

Attorneys: CCSD breaking law by not answering public records request

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Attorneys for Live 5 News notified the Charleston County School District that the district is violating state law by failing to release requested public records within the timeframe the law established.

Live 5 sent district officials a letter from its attorneys in connection with a Sept. 19 request for “copies of any CCSD emailed related to the discovery and/or investigation of inappropriate material on Marvin Gethers' computer in January of 2014.”

Gethers was a former CCSD employee. In 2014, district IT specialists suspected they found child pornography on Gether’s school-issued laptop. Thirty-seven days later, the discovery was reported to law enforcement. School and police files we obtained showed district leaders did not terminate or place Gethers on long-term leave after they reported him to police.

The request for copies of emails relating to the district’s investigation into the Gethers case was sent to the district through the state’s Freedom of Information Act and included a list of email custodians, terms and date ranges, the letter states.

Live 5 News subsequently narrowed the parameters of the request three times after being quoted fees as high as $11,220.20.

The most recent request, sent on Oct. 17, sought “[a]ny email sent to or from Principal Janice Malone’e email containing ‘porn’ or ‘pornography’ betwen Jan. 1 and March 31, 2014, in October 2014, or between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2016.”

The same day the request was made, a CCSD employee responded to the email, stating she would forward the request to the district’s IT team and respond as soon as the IT responded.

Live 5 News has not yet received a response to this latest request.

State law requires each public body to respond to a request within 10 business days (or within 20 business days of receiving requests older than 24 month). The law also requires a public body to provide nonexempt records within no more than 30 calendar days thereafter (or within 35 calendar days for records more than 24 months old).

“The longest available statuatory time period for responding to the station’s request has expired,” Covington and Burling Attorney Hannah Lepow wrote.

Lepow said the CCSD’s response to the Oct. 17 request started a 35-day clock, which meant CCSD would have been required to produce the records by Nov. 21. The latest the district could possibly have provided records and still been within the law under any circumstances would have been Wednesday, the letter states.

Attorneys for Live 5 News say the district’s “continued failure to promptly make the requested records available” may result in the award of reasonable attorney’s fees and other costs of litigation. The violation, they say, may also subject the district to a civil fine of $500, “in addition to an award of actual or compensatory damages and/or equitable relief to the requester” as mandated by the law.

Live 5 investigation raised questions about district’s handling of Gethers case

A Live 5 News investigation in August examined personnel documents and police records related to the Gethers investigation.

Those documents revealed Gethers’s jobs ranged over the years from being a teacher assistant, student concern specialist, afterschool media assistant, tutor, Saturday School teacher and parent advocate.

On Jan. 27, 2014, a “CCSD IT Specialist was performing a routine virus scan of Marvin Matthew Gethers' district-issued laptop,” according to a North Charleston Police affidavit filed in 2016. That IT specialist “observed that pornographic websites had been accessed on the laptop.” Further examination, the affidavit said, showed that some of the websites featured child pornography.

Personnel records state Gethers was sent home for a short time after the district found the illegal material on his laptop.

Investigators said the computer was turned over North Charleston Police on March 5, 2014, 37 days after the computer was seized. On March 6, 2014, NCPD Police detective submitted the computer for forensic analysis at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

It would take nearly two years for that analysis to return.

For reasons still unknown, he was allowed back to work while police investigated. In the police file, a witness statement from a police officer said, “The suspect at that time was put on Administrative leave until investigation. A month or so went by and I was informed the suspect was allowed to come back.”

But the school’s principal recalled the timeline differently. In her witness statement to NCPD, she wrote, “[Gethers] admitted he was responsible” for the pornography on the laptop. “He told me it was done in the privacy of his home after school hours...I told Mr. Gethers to stay home until I learned what the next steps will be.”

“After approx. a week, Mr. Gethers returned to work,” the principal wrote. She said she wasn’t told the outcome of the investigation and never knew the pornography was anything other than adult content.

Gethers himself wrote a letter, dated Jan. 31, 2014, to the school district apologizing for his “poor judgment in inappropriate use of the school’s property.”

The letter is included as evidence in the police file but was not in the personnel file CCSD provided to us under FOIA.

In his letter, Gethers said he accessed “adult content with adults only in its content.” He blames his weakness on a bitter way of dealing with the end of his 25-year marriage. “I ask for mercy,” he wrote. “Please forgive me please! Whatever course of counseling is available I would take at your recommendation. I pray that you will allow me this second chance.”

Gethers was promoted later in 2014 and named Classified Employee of the Year for the district in 2015.

Gethers continued to work at Dunston Elementary in North Charleston until he was arrested for the child pornography 22 months later.

He was later charged with the molestation of two students, assaults that allegedly happened in that 22-month window.

Gethers maintained his innocence of those charges and died before his case could come to trial.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Copyright 2018 WCSC. All rights reserved.