Does district attorney’s letter on Gatlinburg wildfire gag order go too far?

GATLINBURG (WATE) – The people of Gatlinburg have been wanting for seven months to learn more about the circumstances behind November’s wildfires.

Since December, TEMA, city and county leaders, fire crews, and others involved have left everyone in the dark, saying there’s not much they can say because District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn sent a letter asking for no parties to talk about the case.

Juvenile Judge Jeff Rader put out an order the day before asking only judges, jurors and lawyers covering the case to remain quiet.

Previous story: Judge issues order allowing release of some records in Gatlinburg wildfires

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced during a news conference on December 7, 2016, that investigators had arrested and charged two juveniles in those deadly wildfires.

“I’m just not going to talk about it period. That’s my call. All this other information that would be good, would be helpful to you and to others, is not available,” said General Dunn at the time.

“How could knowing when, what happened with the evacuation orders, be relevant to prosecuting the juveniles? It doesn’t make sense,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government,

Fisher says General Dunn’s letter is too broad.

“The underlying documents that show exactly what happened can provide more answers. They’ve been shielded from the public view. Our organization has thought the D.A. went too far.”

Attorney Herbert Moncier says there’s a distinction between the juvenile case and the wildfires.

“First of all, he can’t tell anybody except the local law enforcement not to release public records. Secondly, however, is the question in my mind as to what is the extent of the law enforcement privilege?” Moncier asked.

Moncier adds it’s hard to tell what kind of information could be released and what General Dunn’s request covers. For example, does it cover 911 tapes or firefighter response information?

“There’s got to be answers there and they can’t be tucked away in a prosecutor’s file,” said Moncier.

The big question now is if public record requests will be fulfilled. Tennessee Coalition for Open Government believes with the judge’s clarifications, it should give organizations some assurance.

During a phone call on Thursday, General Dunn would not answer any questions and said he could not speak about this case.

More coverage: Smokies Wildfires

WATE 6 On Your Side is still waiting for records to be processed and released to know more about what happened that night in November.

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