By News Staff
While criminal charges continue to mount against Atmore News Publisher Sherry Digmon, support for the local newspaper — as well as Constitutional concerns — have continued to roll in, expressed by media outlets and journalism groups throughout the nation and beyond.
Criminal complaints filed by District Attorney Steve Billy against Digmon and Don Fletcher, a reporter with the weekly publication, alleging they violated the secrecy of the grand jury, have created an outpouring of attention.
Digmon, a member of the county school board, has subsequently been indicted on alleged ethics violations and has been served with a notification of impeachment. (See separate story, this edition.)
The local journalists were arrested October 27, two days after the newspaper featured a front-page story revealing that the DA, who has been in office since 2004, was investigating “some aspect” of the system’s allocation and use of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, also known as COVID-relief funds.
In a statement issued last week to Al.com, Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said she is concerned with the timing of the Digmon indictments, which follow closely on the heels of the Escambia County Board of Education’s 4-3 vote to not renew the contract of School Superintendent Michele McClung.
Digmon, who represents District 6 on the board, was one of those who voted against a new contract for McClung.
“There is much speculation about the board’s recent decision not to extend the superintendent’s contract,” Smith said in the statement. “The timing of this action — partly based on years-old allegations — is concerning. It would be a profound disservice to the citizens of Escambia County and public servants everywhere if the recent vote and criminal charges are related.
“Reasonable people can agree or disagree with the board’s decision, but it is the board’s duty to make these decisions without undue influence or fear of retaliation.”
Earnie White, the Brewton attorney who is representing Fletcher and Digmon for the alleged revelation of grand jury secrets, said in a story also published by Al.com, the arrests of his clients has triggered requests for comment and statements of support from numerous Alabama media outlets. He said he has also fielded calls from producers and reporters for such media giants as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Cable Network News (CNN) and CBS, among others.
Several journalistic freedom groups — including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership (CNCEL) at The Poynter Institute, and even the Independent Union of European Journalists — have either asked for copies of the stories in question, pledged their support or questioned the Constitutionality of the DA’s actions.
Legal experts from outside the area have also taken notice of the arrests of Digmon and Fletcher.
Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner in the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. offices of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and co-chair of the firm’s Appellate and Constitutional Law Group, said in a Facebook comment the local arrests are “extraordinary, outrageous and flatly unconstitutional.”
School system bookkeeper Veronica “Ashley” Fore, 47, was also charged with revealing grand jury secrets for allegedly furnishing the newspaper with a document on which the story was based.
Kelly McBride, senior vice president and chair of CNCEL, said the former Flomaton Town Clerk might have committed a crime by disclosing grand jury evidence to the news organization, if she indeed was the source of the “leak,” but Atmore News did not commit any criminal act by publishing it.
“There is a nuance there,” McBride said. “Otherwise, the way you interpret the law is prior restraint, which is generally frowned upon as the violation of the free press protection of the First Amendment.”
Jared Schroeder, associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, agreed.
“It’s understandable that a grand jury operates in secrecy and traditionally should be respected,” Schroeder said. “But the line crossed here is that there is no liability for someone who publishes information about this.
“According to this law, if you’re part of the grand jury, you cannot talk or if you have information about (a grand jury proceeding) through your work, you cannot talk. But that’s a difference from publishing information that is a matter of public concern. It’s a concerning move.”
White said Digmon’s alleged ethics violation — soliciting newspaper advertisements from the school system for a publication of which she is co-owner — was brought to light only after she voted against a new contract for McClung.
He also said his client discontinued soliciting ads after Kirk Garrett, the BOE’s attorney, obtained an opinion from the Alabama Ethics Commission that suggested running the ads was ethically acceptable, but that having someone other than Digmon solicit the ads would remove any illusions of unethical behavior.
According to the grand jury report, “McClung had previously questioned the payments to Digmon’s business …and it is the position of this Grand Jury based on testimony given, that Digmon turned against McClung because she questioned payments made to her business …and she based any subsequent decisions out of spite for McClung and not for the children or the best interest of the school system as a whole.”
In a story printed recently in the weekly Tri-City Ledger, the district attorney said his investigation had nothing to do with McClung, that the ethics probe was actually launched prior to McClung’s hiring in 2021.
White revealed that McClung personally approved at least one of the ads, then reported Digmon’s “unethical behavior” to the DA after the newspaper co-owner voted against a new contract.
“The superintendent texted my client and said all was well,” White said. “When (McClung’s contract) was non-renewed, she changed her mind. I’ve been practicing law for 43 years and I have never seen this happen. I’m shocked about it yet.”