After two days of Freedom of Information Act requests and some back-and-forth over what cameras cover what and where, there is still no definitive resolution to the question of whether Marvin Lessmann was at the Faulkner County Courthouse at 4:29 p.m. to file his recount petition on May 22, the last day to file the petition.
Lessmann has claimed since May 22 that he was prevented from filing his recount petition because the county clerk’s office was closed and locked between one and two minutes before its official 4:30 closing time.
The Log Cabin presented County Attorney David Hogue with FOIA requests for cameras that cover courthouse entrances and exits. We received two discs with footage from May 22 from about 4 to 5 p.m.
One contains a fairly grainy view from an enclosed area at the back door of the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office (until recently used to take prisoners to and from court, when court was held at the courthouse, and is still used as a smoker’s lounge). This camera seems intended to cover the sheriff’s office door, but incidentally shows the south entrance to the courthouse.
It does show what could be county clerk office staff leaving from the south door, but this footage has no "time stamp," and so it is our editorial opinion that it is of little evidentiary value in a controversy decided by the passage of one minute.
The other video shows the entrance at the annex on the west side of the courthouse that serves both Courtroom C and the sheriff’s office. Also, it captures anyone who would be using the west entrance to the courthouse itself.
There is a "time stamp" on this footage, but again the waters are muddied by the county’s claim that the "time stamp" is about 12 minutes off. Here’s what this camera showed on the day in question:
• At an indicated 3:52 p.m., Election Commission Chair Betty Pickett enters the courthouse through the west door.
• At an indicated 4:18 p.m., Pickett, County Clerk Melinda Reynolds and Election Commissioner Paul Foster leave together out the west door and walk out of frame. Adjusting for the 12-minute discrepancy, the three would be leaving at 4:30 sharp.
• At no point between 4 and 5 p.m. does Lessmann approach the west door of the courthouse.
The west door of the courthouse is commonly known as the back door. Lessmann told the Log Cabin Democrat that, "I got out of my car at 4:28; I walked up the steps at 4:29; I rattled the door; I tried the back door; I looked back down and my phone said 4:31."
He said on Thursday that he meant these statements to mean that he entered the courthouse through the east (or front) door, and that the door he rattled was an interior door to the clerk’s office. The door he described as the back door, he said on Thursday, was another interior door opening into the clerk’s office.
The County Clerk’s office has given the Log Cabin Democrat a piece of paper with filemarks at 4:27, 4:29 and 4:30 on May 22 with the words "This was done on 5/22/14 for the purpose of anyone that wanted to file a petition for a recount. My office staff and two election commissioners [were] present at the time of closing" written on it.
Foster said on May 27 that he was personally waiting for Lessmann at 4:33. The cameras show him leaving at 4:30, but don’t show whether he stayed on the courthouse grounds.
There is a camera mounted on the west wall of the courthouse pointed at the front door and courthouse steps, and on Thursday the Log Cabin issued a FOIA request for this footage on the day and time in question.
Hogue responded on Friday that the sheriff’s office doesn’t get a video feed from this camera, that County Administrator Tom Anderson verified that monitors in the court bailiffs area don’t show a view from this camera, that county IT director Steve Wade doesn’t know anything about that camera, and that courthouse Maintenance Director Steve Wade understands that it was installed about four years ago, and doesn’t work anymore.
The issue is moot. The election commission did a recount in Lessmann’s race anyway, "to err on the side of caution," as Pickett put it, and the results didn’t change after the recount. However, it was a claim by a candidate against an elected official and an appointed commission. We feel we have investigated it to our satisfaction.