Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008 | I imagine that someone from Mars might read Southeastern Economic Development Corporation’s Corporate Counsel Regina Petty’s (nauseatingly sarcastic) apology to Will Carless and pity her for having to endure the outrageous onus that the press has put on her. Those of us here on Earth, or at least those of us who deal with the SEDC on a regular basis, know that her feigned apology cannot possibly be a sincere “mea culpa.”
Last year I sued SEDC because it completely blew off my client’s request for a few public records that happened to be sitting right there in SEDC’s office all along. SEDC’s president, Carolyn Smith, knew that the records my client wanted were needed to show yet another instance of government wrongdoing. Petty ran interference for SEDC for a little while, ran up some legal bills, and then told me that for weeks the records had been at SEDC’s office ready for inspection. My staff went to the office and found out that many of the records were still in storage and not available for inspection. Ask anyone in the community who criticizes SEDC and asks for public records, and they’ll tell you that the run-around game SEDC played with me is business as usual at SEDC (usually with Petty’s involvement).
Furthermore, I have tried to call Petty about a dozen times over the last year but never—not once — have managed to get her in person. Her staff always offered to put me through to her voice mail, but her voice mail turned out to be full and would not accept a message. Community members I know who have tried to call Petty get the same treatment.
My colleagues have also witnessed Petty in person, during public meetings, telling members of the public that they could not speak to SEDC’s board about matters being considered by the board. Petty even suggested to SEDC’s board members that they could go to jail — that’s right, go to jail! — for doing something that the open-meeting laws allows or even requires.
I certainly understand that the practice of law can be demanding and that all lawyers should be given wide latitude to resolve their clients’ problems without being second-guessed by opposing counsel or the public. Yet Petty’s tactics cross the line, and not by just a little bit. There’s no way that someone like Petty, who has publicly touted herself as the best lawyer in the country, has been innocently guiding SEDC through the legal morass that it finds itself in. Only if Petty were an idiot could we assume SEDC’s repeated illegal behavior during Petty’s watch was the result of innocently bad legal advice. The best lawyer in the country is surely no idiot.
Most lawyers don’t like to swallow their pride. But after many years of practice, I’ve learned (much too slowly) that swallowing my pride is always better than eating crow, especially when that crow is force-fed in public. Had Petty sincerely apologized for her conduct, without trying to justify the unjustifiable, I suspect that most folks, including SEDC’s critics, would be willing to give Petty and SEDC the benefit of the doubt. After all, the best lawyer in the country, like everyone else, is only human.
There’s a certain irony in Petty blaming Carless for what amounts to his job well done in exposing her job done badly. I like irony. What I don’t like is people shooting the messenger because they don’t like the message. Petty’s phony apology won’t fool anyone except, perhaps, Petty. (And that suggests a second irony: Petty, the self-professed best lawyer in the county, being fooled by her own apology.)
Attorney Cory Briggs is representing local activist Ian Trowbridge in a lawsuit against SEDC and its former president, Carolyn Y. Smith.