BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - It's been two years since WECT submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI for records they have pertaining to Ronald E. Hewett. FOIA allows the media, and the general public, to request records about deceased people who were once the subject of federal investigation.
Hewett was a popular sheriff in Brunswick County for 14 years before being removed from office in 2008 amid claims that he was repeatedly intoxicated and impaired on the job, acting in a way that put the community at risk. He was also accused of using public resources, including the labor of his on-duty deputies, to benefit his political campaign.
After state and federal agents issued federal grand jury subpoenas to many of Hewett's deputies, federal officials say Hewett began tampering with the witnesses, instructing them how to testify, and later threatening them with retaliation if they testified against him.
Hewett eventually pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice, and spent just over a year in federal prison before being released in 2010. Several years after his release, Hewett ran into trouble again after authorities found firearms in his home on Holden Beach Road. Hewett was taken to the New Hanover County jail on a federal detainer.
Days after his 2014 arrest, Hewett became combative with a jailer who used a Taser on him and physically subdued Hewett. Hewett died a short time later.
An autopsy revealed Hewett had an underlying heart condition which caused his death. The coroner said his heart problems could have been exacerbated by chronic alcohol use and the physical altercation with jail staff.
Because Hewett had been a high profile law enforcement officer, there was a great deal of public interest in his criminal proceedings. On March 23, 2015, WECT submitted a FOIA request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for records pertaining to the federal investigation into the former Sheriff.
We received an email the same month saying our request had been received and had been submitted for processing.
In June 2015, the FBI mailed WECT a letter granting our request for a fee waiver for copies of the records we requested, because they agreed the information would "contribute significantly to public understanding of the operation or activities of the government and is in the public interest."
On April 27, 2015, when the FBI's website that shows the status of your records request was still not showing progress, we emailed FBI Records Management Public Information Officer David Sobonya for an estimated timetable. He emailed back right away to say, "The Initial Processing alone 'could' take up to 515 days."
In July of 2016, we requested another status check.
Sobonya, who typically responds to our requests within 24 hours or less, again quickly responded that the FBI had identified "potential responsive information" to our request that "awaits assignment to a Government Information Specialist for further processing."
When we asked for clarification on how long that might take, Sobonya explained, that on average, current processing time was 1 year and 10 months. We are not clear if that is from the time the request is initially submitted, or from the time it goes into the queue for assignment to an information specialist.
Two full years have passed since our initial request, and we're still waiting. We have again asked for an update on the status or our FOIA request. This time, we also asked for answers as to why it takes so long to get public records.
Considering the practical ramifications of these time lines, many reporters are likely no longer working for the same news outlet when and if the FBI fulfills their FOIA requests, and the intended stories may be long forgotten and never written. In short, it's no longer news.
Most people understand the realities of limited manpower, but the extraordinary delays by the federal government in providing requested information may be hindering the public's ability to obtain public information, thwarting the intended purpose of the Freedom of Information Act.
We'll let you know if we ever get the requested documents.