These articles became part of the discussion in the city’s 2018 mayoral election. The winner, Frank Scott, ran partially on a police reform platform. A few months after his inauguration, Scott named Keith Humphrey as the city’s chief of police. Humphrey and Scott, both black, began implementing a number of reforms. But since his appointment, Humphrey has encountered aggressive opposition. He was attacked by the police union, sued by several of his subordinates, and convicted by much of his own command staff. He has been charged with sexual harassment, retaliation and favoritism. He has shared his finances and other personal information to the press and local blogs.
The upcoming series will be about the campaign to oust Humphrey and question the allegations against him. But this post is about Chris Burks, the Little Rock attorney who represents all but one of the cops now suing Humphrey. Burks was also the driving force behind many extrajudicial allegations against Humphrey spread through local media.
Ordinarily I would avoid writing about a source in this way, even a hostile one. Unfortunately, Burk’s behavior made this column necessary.
There are only two scenarios in which a journalist can ethically disregard a confidential agreement with a source. The first is when a journalist learns a source who was lied to during the conversation in order to deliberately mislead the journalist. It is clear that Burks lied to me relentlessly and not just once in our conversation. The second scenario is that the source itself passes the content of the confidential conversation on to other parties. Not only did Burks discuss our confidential conversation with other parties, he lied about it and falsely characterized it in an affidavit in order to leverage one of his lawsuits.
Here’s what happened: On November 24th, I emailed Burks to request an interview. he called me back a short time later. We agreed to a confidential phone call for background information. I then emailed him a list of questions he could answer on the file.
Since the phone call was confidential, I did not record it. But I took notes. Burks started with flattery. He kept telling me how much he admired my work, that he had read all of my Little Rock reviews, and that he thought it was important. In a follow-up email, he wrote that I and my Post colleague David Weigel were his favorite journalists.
The more I asked him about some of his allegations against Humphrey, the more he seemed to turn to his personal good works. During the course of our interview, I asked questions and he replied that he was an Obama delegate who supported police reform, informed me of any civil rights litigation he had filed, or informed me about his professional Bono Work for Blacks and Poor. This all set off some red flags.
To gauge Burks’ honesty, I asked a few questions to which I already knew the answers. His answers were deceptive. That assessment determined how I conducted the rest of the interview. The entire interview felt like an exercise in trying to get straight answers from him as he tried to deceive me, keep me from the story, and – as I would learn later – get me information about to reveal my sources.
I went on to ask Burks about the various allegations he has made against Humphrey both in court and in the local media. While we were discussing these allegations, Burks made new allegations against Humphrey that I hadn’t heard before. I have since learned that these allegations were also false or misleading.
At the time, I was confused by these new claims. I hadn’t met them in court records, hadn’t heard from my sources, and I hadn’t seen them in any local news coverage. So I asked Burks where these new allegations were coming from. He told me that they came out in deposits because of one of the lawsuits that happened just days before we spoke.
This was the first time I had heard of these statements. It turns out there was a good reason for that. Last month, the judge issued a protection order in the case preventing the parties from discussing content or exhibits relating to personnel files, performance reviews, or any other matter agreed by the parties involved. Burks not only told me about the deposits, he also told me about the protection order. He also insisted that if I could read the transcripts from the testimony, it would change the way I told my reporting materially.
So Burks had just told me about deposits that I didn’t know had happened. He told me that these statements revealed evidence that would change my story dramatically, and then passed some of this (mischaracterized) evidence on to me. He also told me about the city’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Humphrey, which would constitute a clear violation of the protection order. (According to my sources, he also incorrectly characterized the results of this investigation.)
This would normally not be a problem. Journalists want sources to violate these types of orders when it is in the public interest to do so. I obviously want my series to be fully informed, so of course I wanted to read the transcripts. I asked Burks if he would share it with me. He said he couldn’t and quoted the protection order. Rather, he said he would ask the judge to reverse the order the next day, and at that point he would send it to me.
But Burks didn’t do that. Instead, he emailed Humphrey’s attorneys on November 28th to use our confidential conversation during the discovery negotiations in one of his lawsuits. He also made false claims about our conversation.
In the email, Burks claimed I told him that Humphrey had shared parts of the LRPD personnel files with me. That is not true. Burks also made other false claims about other documents and information I allegedly shared with him that Humphrey shared with me. The general implication of the email was that I told Burks in our conversation that Humphrey shared documents, texts, emails, and other information that violated the protection order. None of this is true.
According to Humphrey’s attorneys, Burks told them in a subsequent telephone conversation that I disclosed more information in a follow-up email that Humphrey had given that further violated the order. This is also not true. I only sent Burks two emails. The first was my request for an interview. The second was a series of questions that we agreed to answer on the file. (He hasn’t answered it yet.)
Then it got even stranger. On November 28, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette published a story of some text messaging between Humphrey and a member of his command staff. The texts were an exhibition from the deposits. For the purpose of this post, the content is not important other than that the texts have been contextualized in a way that embarrasses the police chief. Humphrey’s attorneys believe this was a clear breach of the protection order and on December 1 asked a judge to find Burks in contempt. In his response, Burks claimed that he only violated the order because Humphrey first violated him. His proof of this claim was again our confidential conversation. He writes that in his conversation with the Democrat Gazette, he “only tried to confirm the authenticity of text messages. . . that had already been published and given to the Washington Post by Humphrey. “
This is wrong. Humphrey never gave me the text messages that appeared in the Democrat Gazette. I first saw it when Burks sent it to me on November 27th.
The protection order was issued on November 17th. Before I spoke to Burks, my last conversation with Humphrey was on October 25th. Humphrey and I had two email notices after Nov. 17, but neither had anything to do with the lawsuit under a warrant. Since I first covered this story in May, Humphrey has sent me text messages between him and other officials, as well as an email exchange between him and other parties. Even if these texts and e-mails fall under the protection order (which is not necessarily the case), he sent them to me in the summer, months before the order was issued.
When I asked Burks to comment on this post, he argued in a number of texts that the disclosure of content from our confidential conversation in his affidavit and correspondence with Humphrey’s attorneys was merely his way of fulfilling his promise to me Unseal the transcripts.
It is doubtful. If the court agrees that Humphrey is in breach of the protection order, the judge could then overturn it, but that does not change the fact that Burks misrepresented our conversation with both the court and Humphrey’s lawyers.
Burks also argues in his texts that he did not break our confidential agreement by only disclosing the content of our conversation in court files for one case under Siegel.
It is true that his statement should be kept under wraps. But first of all, there is no exception to “sealed court documents” to a confidential agreement. Second, he again misled the court as to the content of the conversation in these documents. And third, the day after it was filed, Burks’ sworn, sealed statement was extensively quoted in the Democrat Gazette. Burks denied having leaked his statement. He suggested that the paper may have received the document due to a filing error in the clerk’s office.
Burks also insisted that his texts in response to my request for comment for this post were also confidential. However, “Off the Record” requires an agreement between the reporter and the source. nobody can invoke it unilaterally. Since he seems to have continued to mislead me in these texts, I do not feel obliged to comply with his request.
Overall, Burks lied to me repeatedly and tried to mislead me during our confidential conversation. He then violated our confidential agreement several times. Then he lied to both of the other lawyers and misled a court about the content of our conversation.
I am not writing this to aid Humphrey’s legal endeavors or to help him remain Little Rock’s chief of police. I want to prevent an attorney from misrepresenting their confidential conversation with me in a way that will mislead a court and to ensure that the court’s decisions regarding that lawsuit are based on accurate information.