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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)
Thomas Mars, the Arkansas-based attorney for former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, claims the university is trying to avoid full disclosure of more than five years of former coach Hugh Freeze's phone records and is challenging the school's estimate of $25,100 in legal fees to complete the request.
In a letter sent to Ole Miss general counsel Friday and shared with USA TODAY Sports, Mars says the schools is engaging in "stonewalling tactics" for dealing with requests under the Mississippi Open Records Act.
"From the very outset, the University has found all kinds of creative and illegitimate reasons to delay producing documents, redact documents without legal justification," he wrote.
Mars' limited request for Freeze's phone records from January 2016 uncovered a one-minute phone call to a Detroit number tied to an escort service. That revelation led Ole Miss to dive deeper into Freeze's phone records, where the school says it found a pattern of inappropriate conduct. Freeze resigned on July 20.
Mars filed a lawsuit July 12 on behalf of Nutt, alleging school officials, including Freeze and athletics director Ross Bjork, had pushed a false narrative through the media about the level of Nutt's involvement in the school's NCAA Notice of Allegations.
Mars, who initially sought an apology from Ole Miss officials, connected phone calls from Freeze and Bjork to media members, who subsequently reported misleading information.
Following Freeze's resignation, Mars expanded his requests for phone records to cover nearly all of Freeze's tenure as head coach. If those records are made public, it could reveal the pattern of behavior over which Freeze ultimately lost his job.
Mars, however, wrote to the school he wasn't on a "fishing expedition" for embarrassing information.
"We know 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. "And setting up a frivolous roadblock the way you've done it here just makes you look like you're scared to death of what we're going to find in those phone records."
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, Mars declined to elaborate on what he was looking for in the records.
In the original request made by Mars, Ole Miss took the position that Freeze was allowed to redact personal calls from his phone records. Mars said there is no such legal authority in Mississippi that would allow the school to "delay, redact or withhold a University phone log which contains nothing but phone numbers, dates, times, the duration of calls, and the cities associated with the listed phone numbers."
Ole Miss informed Mars that combing through 33,000 cell phone records would take approximately 190 hours of legal work for the school's outside counsel and the school's general counsel. The school says Nutt and Mars would have the burden to pay those legal costs, approximately $25,100.
"There's nothing they can do with those records except produce them," Mars told USA TODAY Sports. "There's no reason for lawyers to look at them. They're not allowed to redact them. Phone records aren't privileged under any circumstances. This is just a bogus exercise they're manufacturing to try to put a huge price tag on these records and deter me and other people from getting their hands on them. They can't make me pay for their lawyers to review them. That's their problem."
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