Kudos are in order for Craig Hardegree, a fellow Georgia blogger who discovered last week that the files from Gingrich’s first divorce were not sealed after all. Hardegree, a licensed Georgia attorney, is not a professional journalist, and is not employed by CNN or the Daily Mail or Bloomberg, who are all now busily plastering the internet with headlines about the newly available public documents about Gingrich’s divorce.
Hardegree, who has described himself as a “Southern country lawyer; evangelical Christian; ultra liberal”, is a good storyteller.
On Wednesday, December 21, 2011, I was at a popular eating establishment in Carrollton, Georgia when I learned that a news reporter had been told by someone in the Carroll County Superior Court Clerk's office that the 1980 divorce file of Newt was "sealed" and unavailable for public inspection. While I didn't particularly care what was contained in a 30 year old file, the mere fact that it was sealed piqued my interest. I figured it’s a lot like a birth certificate -- if there’s nothing to hide, why not just show it to all of us?
Hardegree’s backstory on how he went about getting the information reads like a legal thriller, albeit one set in a small town. Personally, I think his account of how he did this should be required reading for every investigative story editor employed by a major news organization. Maybe they can’t put this kind of detail in their print versions, but their online editions certainly have the space.
Below Hardegree explains what happened last Thursday when he went over to the Carroll County courthouse and asked to see County Clerk Alan Lee.
A few minutes later, Clerk Lee showed up. Extremely nice and very cordial, he apologized for my wait and invited me into his office to look at the files as he explained what had happened. He said he was aware that there was a “rumor” that Newt’s file was sealed and he knew that the rumor had emanated from his office. And he knew how it had gotten started.
Apparently, at some point during the administration of the previous clerk, there had been some concern that someone might try to steal the original file from the courthouse, so the deputy clerk at the time had put the file in a special hiding place. That was years ago. And Clerk Lee knew nothing about it.
One of the advantages Hardegree had over national journalists was his familiarity with the local customs and an intimate understanding of the personalities and the backgrounds of his local elected officials. Another was his knowledge of Georgia law regarding the sealing of civil litigation files.
When this current political season started several months ago, Clerk Lee had a similar concern and asked Amy (downstairs) to bring the file up to his office for safekeeping. When Amy couldn’t locate it where it should have been, she called the now-retired deputy clerk who told her about the special hiding place. The retired-deputy clerk then mentioned that she thought the case might have been sealed.
Clerk Lee continued explaining to me, that Amy located the files and brought them up to his office where he reviewed them and couldn’t find an order sealing them. So out of an abundance of caution, he called one of the attorneys who had represented Mrs. Gingrich and he said he didn’t remember the files being sealed and further said he didn’t know any reason why they should have been sealed. Clerk Lee then called the retired deputy clerk and she reiterated that she only thought they could have been sealed at some point, but wasn’t sure. So they had all collectively come to the conclusion that these files which had been hidden for several years, were, in fact, not sealed.
Newt Gingrich has become the poster child for the Angry White Male Conservative Movement over the last few weeks. The recent brouhaha over the ineptitude of his own campaign, which failed to gather enough signatures to get him on the ballot for the Virginia GOP primary, had the Gingrich campaign spokesman comparing this to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I can’t imagine who they will blame for the disclosure of the divorce filings between Gingrich and Jackie Battley, his first wife, but I’m sure it will be another textbook example of why we don’t need this former history professor as the next president of these United States.