Former Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt's attorney says the university is trying to postpone the release of Hugh Freeze's phone records by redacting personal information from the calls, which he says isn't permitted under state open-records laws.
In a letter sent to Ole Miss assistant general counsel Rob Jolly on Friday, attorney Thomas Mars accused the school of a "pattern of concealing information from the public by manufacturing bogus exemptions and illegal roadblocks that plainly violate the FOIA."
In the letter, which was obtained by ESPN, Mars said the university estimated the cost of searching, reviewing, redacting and duplicating Freeze's cell phone records from June 2012 to present would cost $25,100. The school said it was still estimating the costs for records of Freeze's landline calls.
"I've been involved in media law and FOIA cases for thirty years," Mars told ESPN. "I've unsealed court records for the Wall Street Journal in the Whitewater matter and used the FOIA to obtain public records in countless cases involving government agencies. In all those years, I've never encountered a government entity that was so defiant and so willing to just make up groundless reasons for keeping public records under wraps."
The university estimated it would take 190 hours for someone from their outside attorney's office (at $130 per hour) and someone from their general counsel's office (at $40 per hour) to prepare the records.
"We know exactly what we're looking for, it's very relevant to Coach Nutt's lawsuit, and we know it's in the phone logs," Mars wrote in the letter to Jolly. "And setting up a frivolous roadblock the way you've done it here just makes you guys look like you're scared to death of what we're going to find in those phone records. Frankly, you've now got us wondering what you're trying to hide."
Ole Miss did not immediately respond to ESPN's request for comment.
Late Friday, Ole Miss and its Board of Trustees filed a motion to have Nutt's lawsuit dismissed, arguing they are immune from such legal actions.
"Like other Mississippi public universities, the University of Mississippi is an 'arm of the State of Mississippi' immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment," the response read. "The same is true for the IHL Board. For this reason, the University and the IHL Board are alter egos of the State and not 'citizens' for diversity jurisdiction purposes."
On Monday, ESPN reported that Steve Robertson, a recruiting writer for a website that covers Mississippi State sports, discovered the phone call that Freeze made to an escort service that led to his resignation last week. A call to a 313 area-code number made on Jan. 19, 2016, lasting one minute, was made to a number connected with several advertisements for female escorts.
Robertson obtained the phone records from Mars, who earlier this month filed a defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss on Nutt's behalf in federal court in Jackson, Mississippi. Mars had been introduced to Robertson through a third party he found while doing online research into Nutt's case.
Mars requested only three days' of Freeze's phone records in his the open-records request that turned up the call to the escort service; the university estimates Freeze's cellphone records from 2012 include more than 33,000 calls.
"From the very outset, the University has found all kinds of creative and illegitimate reasons to delay producing documents, redact documents without legal justification, etc.," Mars wrote to Jolly. "What's more, as every sports reporter who covers Ole Miss knows, the University has adopted the same 'delay and conceal at all costs' approach with every journalist who's sought information related to the pending NCAA investigation."
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., also questioned whether Ole Miss officials were legally allowed to redact Freeze's personal calls from the records.
"The billing records for a university-owned cellphone are not 'exempt from disclosure' -- they are classic public records that any requester is entitled to inspect and copy," LoMonte wrote in a blog on the SPLC's website earlier this week. "Nothing in the law explicitly authorizes what the university did -- selectively removing material categorized as exempt from otherwise-public records."