A lawsuit accusing Delaware Department of Insurance officials of violating the Freedom of Information Act has devolved into a war of words between the owner of a defensive driving school and the judge hearing the case.
Robert Reeder of Dover, owner of Delaware Defensive Driving Inc., claims Chancery Court judge Leo Strine Jr. has shown bias in favor of the defendants. Reeder also maintains that the judge has a possible conflict of interest or at least an appearance of impropriety.
In a testy exchange of letters with Reeder, Strine contends Reeder has offered no basis for him to recuse himself and has unfairly tried to draw the judge’s parents into the fray.
Reeder argues that an appearance of impropriety exists because Insurance Commissioner Matt Denn last year appointed Strine’s father to serve in an unpaid capacity as chairman of an advisory committee.
The dispute stems from Reeder’s lawsuit, filed in August, over the practices of the Defense Driving Credentials Committee. The DDCC certifies driving schools and is overseen by the insurance department. The suit accuses the DDCC of repeatedly violating the Freedom of Information Act and of showing favoritism to one of Reeder’s competitors, Delaware Safety Council Inc. of Wilmington.
Deputy Attorney General Kevin Slattery, who is representing the state, said in court papers that there is no reason for Strine to recuse himself.
Strine said the advisory committee, on which his father served under a previous insurance commissioner, is not an issue in Reeder’s case, nor is the fact that his mother contributed to Denn’s political campaign.
“My parents do not consult me on such matters. They were adults before I was,” the judge wrote in a Jan. 26 letter.
“That is the type of response I might have expected from some of my lesser-behaved teenage students during my tenure as a driver education teacher at Dover High School,” Reeder fired back two days later. “I do not believe it is worthy of the status of a vice chancellor of Delaware’s Chancery Court.”
Denn declined to be interviewed, but responded to a reporter’s questions by e-mail.
“I believe it is unseemly for Mr. Reeder to be personally attacking the vice chancellor’s parents,” Denn wrote.
Reeder’s dispute with Strine also includes claims that the judge belittled him during a Jan. 6 hearing on the state’s motion to issue summary judgment on behalf of the insurance department and the DDCC, and to dismiss the Department of Justice as a defendant.
“That man basically came after me and called me a liar,” Reeder said.
According to a transcript of the hearing, Strine implied that Reeder’s practice of taping meetings of the DDCC was “sort of freaky,” and seemed to defend the state’s position that a public body subject to the Freedom of Information Act can meet without a quorum, as the DDCC did on April 12, 2005.
Strine also wondered why Reeder insisted on pursuing his complaint when Denn, at least partly in response to Reeder’s complaints, has adopted new regulations that will abolish the DDCC effective Feb. 11.
“What I don’t really understand is, there’s a time in life when you ought to sort of go buy a bottle of wine and have a toast to victory,” the judge said. “And I really don’t understand why you’re not having a … celebratory drink.”
Reeder is particularly upset that Strine, who implied that Reeder was not being candid about his own knowledge of FOIA, seemed to dismiss his allegations that DDCC Chairwoman Kathy Gravell had made false statements in an affidavit.
“I can’t put her under truth serum or anything like that,” Strine said at the hearing. “I don’t know whether she’s being truthful or not.”
Reeder said Strine has a duty, as a judge in a court that has no jury trials, to determine the truth.
“He should consider resigning from the bench,” Reeder said. “He has flat-out come out and said he can’t do his job.”
Through his secretary, Elaine Boulden, Strine declined a request for an interview, citing judicial ethics.
“Vice Chancellor Strine cannot ethically respond to your questions regarding the pending case,” Boulden said. “All the litigants know that as well, and know that what they say to you cannot be responded to by Vice Chancellor Strine. The vice chancellor will address arguments made to him in the case in an official decision.”
Reeder claims in his lawsuit that Gravell failed to submit minutes of a February 2005 meeting in a timely fashion and failed to include the fact that the committee agreed to ask Denn for an investigation of its relationship with Delaware Safety Council, which the committee placed on probation last year for repeatedly ignoring orders to stop offering an unapproved computer-based driving course.
According to documents obtained by Reeder, Gravell also solicited votes of DDCC members by e-mail at least three times, apparently circumventing public meeting laws.
“I am hoping to hear back from you today by e-mail as a vote so we can clean a few matters up before the holiday,” Gravell wrote in a December 2003 e-mail asking committee members to vote on three items.
In December 2004, Gravell sent another e-mail telling committee members that, if they agreed, she would ask the insurance commissioner to allow probationary approval of online courses. That e-mail prompted a note of caution from committee member William Bush, policy adviser to Safety and Homeland Security Secretary David Mitchell.
“As I believe the Defensive Driving Credentialing Committee … is a public body … I am concerned about the e-mail discussion that is taking place,” Bush wrote.
Reeder’s lawsuit also focuses on the April 12 DDCC meeting last year, when Gravell and another member of the five-person panel met without a quorum. The pair voted to go into an executive session attended by Michael Rich, the deputy attorney general who represents the insurance department.
After Reeder complained, Rich said in an e-mail that Gravell had relied on his direction, and that it was permissible for the committee to meet without a quorum as long as no votes were taken. That position appears to be at odds with previous court rulings and attorney general’s opinions.
“A quorum is required,” said Lori Sitler, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
Slattery initially told the court that Rich did not advise the DDCC on any matter relating to its quorum requirements or other FOIA issues. He later amended his brief to delete the statement, but offered no explanation in the filing.
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