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DeWitt: Withholding of information about arrest of public official's daughter raises questions

Published Jan. 21, 2016

Sadly, a promising young woman started making stupid, dishonest decisions a few weeks ago.

While working as a clerk at a Target store in Hernando County, she stole from the cash register, according to an arrest report. Small amounts at first, but then in chunks of more than $200 and even $300, for a total of $2,283 — all of it caught on a security video.

Jenna Barbee was arrested at the store on Jan. 11 on a felony charge of organized fraud and taken to the Hernando County Detention Center, where she was released on $1,000 bail.

It's the kind of routine crime we normally wouldn't report, except for one thing:

She's the daughter of Hernando County Clerk of Circuit Court Don Barbee, and her name didn't show up anywhere in county records.

It is blacked out in the routine report that the Sheriff's Office released to the news media. There's an online report, with mug shots, of other inmates booked at the jail that day, but nothing on Barbee's daughter. Neither will you find her name, nor any record that such an arrest occurred, among the reports on the Sheriff's Office website.

(The Times was able to confirm she was arrested because of a record sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.)

When contacted by the Times, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney and Barbee justified withholding her name by citing sections of the Florida Statutes that allow redacting of names and other personal information — usually addresses — of family members of current and former law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

Barbee, previously an assistant state attorney and an FBI agent, said, "I happen to be both."

Barbee — who was also a major asset to Sheriff Al Nienhuis in last year's politically bloody budget fight — said the two of them didn't talk directly. But Barbee did call the Sheriff's Office and request that it "follow the statute." He took it upon himself to do the same, he said, removing Jenna's name from her court file.

The problem is that deciding to black out names is a step beyond merely following state law, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit organization.

The law allows the withholding of names, Petersen said. It does not require it, meaning that Barbee made that decision on his daughter's behalf, and someone at the Sheriff's Office made it for him — after, of course, consulting with Nienhuis.

Nienhuis said the report's disappearance from his office's website was a "computer glitch," the result of software not being able to process reports without names. Okay, but the convenient end result is an extra level of protection for young Barbee's identity, something generally not available to adults charged with a felony.

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And Moloney, who has served as the sheriff's spokeswoman since 2012, said she could never remember previously withholding a name for this reason.

The sheriff, though he couldn't site specific cases, said that "we typically do it if we get a request. Also, we like to err on the side of caution."

Actually, Florida law says officials should err on the side of disclosure, Petersen said. The justification for scrubbing information from public records is to protect families from danger, not embarrassment.

"Just because they can keep it secret, doesn't mean they should," she said.

"If it had been you or me, with no influential daddy, there's no way they would have kept it secret."

Staff Writer Barbara Behrendt and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

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