Bedford DA must be transparent

William Higgins’ successor as Bedford County district attorney, Lesley Childers-Potts, has embarked on her new responsibility commendably.

Thrust into her new role virtually without notice, Childers-Potts has set out to restore the public’s trust in the DA’s Office — trust that was undermined by the alleged crimes of which Higgins is accused.

Higgins, 43, was charged April 4 with 31 misdemeanor offenses including helping multiple women avoid arrest and jail in exchange for sexual favors, revealing the identities of confidential informants and arranging for others to receive lenient sentences. He resigned the day following his arraignment, effective immediately, despite the fact that he, like anyone else accused of a crime, must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

He has entered a not-guilty plea to the charges.

Upon Higgins’ resignation, Childers-Potts took over as the county’s chief prosecutor and person in charge of the DA’s Office and its employees. Her initial step toward trying to repair the damage that Higgins’ alleged unconscionable conduct caused was to put all employees of the office on temporary administrative leave, presumably to evaluate whether they should remain in their respective roles, going forward.

In a press release distributed Friday night, Childers-Potts announced that she had fired three staff members.

She didn’t provide an explanation for why the employees had been terminated, and she also declined to reveal the identities of those who were fired, indicating that she desired to “respect their privacy.”

It’s to be presumed that the names and dates of termination could turn up eventually as part of the county’s public records.

As commendable as Childers-Potts’ initial performance seems to have been, she can be judged as having erred in her refusal to divulge immediately the identities of those let go.

That refusal ignored the workers’ status as employees of the public — employees who were paid with public funds and who worked in facilities owned by the public. Therefore, the public had the right — immediately — to learn the identities in question.

Childers-Potts should rethink her decision to withhold the names. If she continues to stand by that decision, the county commissioners should step forward and make that information known as part of their responsibilities on behalf of transparent county government.

The public should not have to “dig” for that information.

Although the termination actions are a “personnel matter,” they are outside the scope of information generally protected under privacy policies.

Disclosing identities and the positions held would not be tantamount to implying that the individuals had been involved in suspected criminal wrongdoing. Rather, the firings might indicate that perhaps the employees had knowledge or suspicions regarding Higgins’ alleged illegal conduct that they failed to share with authorities outside the office.

Without any explanation from Childers-Potts about why she opted for the firings, the public is left with serious questions, and a window for rumors remains wide open.

Childers-Potts worked commendably from the start upon assuming the duties that she was handed when Higgins resigned. Now she should complete the office transition correctly by casting aside secrecy and embracing the right of the public to receive information to which it is entitled.

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