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Undercover cover up?

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By The Staff

Here’s the $1.5 million question: Who will a jury believe in the case between former City Administrator Billie Russell and the LaFollette officials she claims wrongfully fired her?

Russell filed a lawsuit in April that alleges high-ranking city officials engaged in several questionable practices during her tenure from June 2013 to January 2014.

In her suit, Russell claims that LaFollette Police Chief Jimmy Jeffries allowed known prostitutes to enter though a back entrance of the secured City Municipal Building to remain out of the “public eye” and that an untrained administrative staff member was being used by cops in an undercover prostitution sting last fall.

Russell claims she was fired — in part — for refusing to participate or remain silent about certain other illegal activities, too.

While the problem of open-air prostitution in LaFollette is one the Press has opined about previously, we believe Russell’s harsh accusations against the police chief deserved a closer look.

That’s why the Press requested documentation of any official exchanges regarding the late-September 2013 LPD-led sting, in which 11 men were charged with soliciting undercover prostitutes. Such requests for government documents are permissible under open-records laws, which affirm that taxpayer-supported agencies must conduct business transparently.

By requesting records from the city, the Press hoped it could either 1) support Russell’s claims, or 2) vindicate officials accused of wrongdoing.

But that remains difficult.

The City of LaFollette recently released an official response to our request for information which states no documented communication exists on the matter.

“Particularly, there were no cell phone texts, emails, hand-written notes, Post-its, etc. concerning the prostitution ring from September 15, 2013 to October 15, 2013,” clarified City Clerk Joy L. Ellison, who sent the city’s official response to the Press.

To us, it’s hard to conceive that no records exist.

With such a covert operation, the Press expected that police personnel and other officials would have at least written down a plan, scrawled a memo or sent a text at some point during last fall’s sting. That’s because the actions of law enforcement are increasingly tracked and backed with documentation to ensure prosecutors have a better chance at a conviction when offenders go to court.

And we believe some paper trails must exist because most of the men charged with solicitation last fall pleaded guilty and were fined as much as $1,000.

We also find it plausible that police used an untrained administrative staff member in its undercover sting. Local police actually asked two LaFollette Press female employees last summer if they’d be decoys in the sting.

LaFollette Mayor Mike Stanfield told the Press shortly after Russell filed her suit that the city was prepared to defend itself in court against her allegations.

It’s unclear if Russell hold’s a “smoking gun” to succesfully prove her claims, but surely city officials will need some documented proof to tip a jury in their favor. If not, the answer to the $1.5 million question — that’s the amount of money Russell seeks in damages from her suit — could clear any doubts we have in this case and highlight more serious problems within the LaFollette ranks.

Pressing Issues represent the opinion of the five-member editorial board of the LaFollette Press.