Attorney: McClung subpoena led to indictments
News Staff Report
The preliminary hearing for Atmore News publisher Sherry Digmon and reporter Don Fletcher, scheduled for Monday, December 4, was called off when District Attorney Steve Billy obtained an indictment against each local journalist.
Brewton attorney Earnie White, who represents both defendants, said in an interview published by al.com that the indictments were triggered by a subpoena he issued to Escambia County School Superintendent Michele McClung, who would have had to take the witness stand if the preliminary hearing had gone through.
“Once you’re indicted, you’re not entitled to a preliminary hearing,” explained White, who said the indictments were “a maneuver by (the DA) to prevent him from questioning McClung under oath.” The defense attorney added that, “(the DA) doesn’t want me to take the testimony of Ms. McClung. That’s my opinion.”
The indictments, handed up last Friday, December 1, allege that Digmon and Fletcher “did corruptly obtain information pertaining grand jury considerations, evidence, or other matters taken or transpiring within a grand jury,” then revealed in an October 25 news story that a grand jury investigation was being conducted into “some aspect” of the Escambia County School System’s handling of COVID-19 relief funds.
The article was based on a copy of a subpoena Billy had issued to Chief Schools Financial Officer Rochelle Richardson and payroll-insurance bookkeeper Ashley Fore, who was also arrested and charged with revealing secrets of the grand jury. Cindy Jackson, who holds the District 4 seat on the school board, has since been arrested on the same charge.
“I’m not surprised by it,” White said of the indictment. “I’m surprised at the timing a little bit because we had the preliminary hearing scheduled for Monday morning. If they were going to indict [Digmon and Fletcher] on revealing grand jury information, they could have done that way back.”
White added that he had planned to ask a judge at the hearing to throw out the charges on Constitutional grounds and will continue to seek such an outcome.
“It doesn’t affect our legal strategy,” he said.