If it happened on the Internet, you'd call it a denial of service attack.
The tactic — known in the parlance as a DoS attack — is meant to shut down a website by overloading its server with fake traffic. When bombarded by requests, the site's ability to respond to legitimate users is weakened, if not completely eliminated. Such attacks have increasingly become the weapon of choice for political hacktivists.
But for nearly two months, Metro officials and employees at the Department of General Services, the Department of Law and the Nashville Farmers Market say they've experienced — in effect, if not by intent — something of an analog version. They've been inundated by public records requests, filed just about daily by a man named Ken Jakes.
Jakes' name may be familiar to Metro political observers. He ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the Metro Council in 2011, and for the District 1 seat four years earlier. But if Jakes is a vague memory to Davidson County voters, government employees working for numerous Metro departments know him well. Sources with decades of experience in government say the volume of requests Jakes has generated over the years is unprecedented.
"I've never seen anything like this person," says a Metro attorney who has fielded Jakes' inquiries in the past. "He's in a complete class of his own."
According to one Metro source, someone exasperated by the unending stream of requests decided to start counting them back in 2009. Between Sept. 30, 2009 and April 18, 2013, Jakes sent 1,816 emails to the Metropolitan Government — averaging just about one and a half emails per day for more than three years.
Jakes says it takes a lot of time to scour the documents generated by these requests, which can constitute thousands of pages. But at least three attorneys who have handled his requests say they've seen him spend 10 minutes looking at a phonebook-thick sheaf of requested material, only to leave without making any copies.
Every Metro source the Scene reached repeatedly affirmed Jakes' right to request and obtain public records. However, just about all of them used the word "harassment" to describe his actions over the years. One individual who has dealt with Jakes in the past asked not to be named "because Ken Jakes is very vindictive and he will turn his interest on anyone who he feels like is out to get him. And he is relentless."
One Metro official describes a system in which an individual staffer would be "specially assigned" to Jakes until they couldn't handle the task any longer. At that point, another member of the team would take their place. Multiple sources describe serving a term as the "Ken Jakes point person."
The paper trail left by Jakes' requests winds through the Board of Zoning Appeals, the finance department and General Services, to name a few. He has aimed his attention at the management of the Metro-owned state fairgrounds, and his 2011 campaign was largely based on his support for the property.
A citizen holding government accountable by combing through open records is a civic boon, and Jakes' diligence has arguably yielded some finds. A state audit last year found a number of improper spending practices at Nashville Electric Service, which Jakes tells the Scene he helped to unearth. He was at the utility's next board meeting, calling for NES President Decosta Jenkins to be fired.
Now Jakes has trained his document-request artillery on the Nashville Farmers Market, another local institution whose management practices have come under fire in the past year. But this time, sources at the market and within Metro wonder whether the government watchdog has picked up a case of distemper. After a reportedly heated encounter between Metro officials and market vendors, they claim Jakes is motivated this time by vested self-interest — something the persistent gadfly vehemently denies.
Hurricane Jakes made landfall amid a transitional period for the market. After a highly critical review from Metro's finance department last year, then-market director Jeff Themm stepped down. In addition to her day job, Metro's Director of General Services Nancy Whittemore has been serving as interim director ever since, working with the market's board of directors to address the problems cited in the review.
At the behest of Mayor Karl Dean, the board has been sketching out a long-term vision that they hope will, among other things, bring financial stability to the market, which has operated in the red for years. Earlier this month, the Metro Council approved a supplemental appropriations bill that included $615,700 in funding to cover the market's deficit and get it through the end of the fiscal year.
Among the review's recommendations was that the market bring more consistency to its lease agreements with vendors, and adjust rental rates that in some cases did not account for some of the market's costs. A new policy, with increased daily rates, was met with opposition from some of the produce vendors at the market. Just as those rates were being implemented, at the beginning of March, Jakes' records requests began pouring in.
Given Jakes' reputation, the fact that he's found another Metro department to target is unremarkable. But the specific circumstances of his newfound interest, and the way he has exercised it by hammering the market and General Services with requests for every imaginable piece of information, have raised questions about whether he's using public records requests in this case as a kind of gunboat diplomacy.
Jakes is not a neutral party in the dispute. His family owns Jakes Produce, a produce wholesaler that sells to several of the vendors at the market. Simply put, an increase in rates for vendors reselling produce at the market could mean a decrease in profits for the Jakes family business. The dispute comes at a time when a schism between local producers who directly sell their own goods and resellers is causing controversy at farmers markets across the city. (See "Market Fluctuations," April 18.)
Sources at the market and in Metro tell the Scene of a meeting that took place last month between Whittemore and a few vendors who were unhappy about the change in rates. At that meeting, they say, one vendor told Whittemore that if the rates were lowered, they could make a phone call and Jakes would go away.
Whittemore confirms the meeting, and the statement about making Jakes go away, but declined to comment about who said it. But two of the sources who spoke to the Scene say the vendor in question was Wanda Robertson of Robertson's Produce, part of Jakes' clientele.
Robertson's husband, George, denies that either of them made such a statement. They couldn't call Jakes off, he says, because "we didn't call him on to start with."
"Nobody's going to make him go away if he gets in on something," he says.
Speaking by phone, Jakes never raises his voice — but that's only because it starts up there, as something like a mild shout.
"I'm a produce wholesaler, and I sell to those produce vendors at the farmers market," he says. "So, do I have a special interest in this? Absolutely I do. But it goes beyond that."
If the market is going to receive a Metro subsidy, he says, "I'm going to find out where all this money goes to." As for the rates, he says the vendors won't be able to pay them, and that the market is increasing them to "make up for their mismanagement."
Asked if it's a contradiction for someone ostensibly calling for efficient government to be introducing more muck into the system than he rakes out, Jakes says no.
"My requests, every one of them, are as sincere as I can get," Jakes says.
A public records request filed April 1 by the Scene — requesting all public records requests pertaining to the market filed in the past month — yielded 78 pages of exhaustive requests. Most of these are from Jakes, with the exception of a few filed by apparent associates. A long list of individuals is carbon-copied on most of Jakes' requests, including the Tennessee Tea Party and the president of the Tennessee Republican Assembly. Individuals on that list filed several requests obtained by the Scene.
Much of the mismanagement Jakes intends to investigate, however, was detailed in the financial review — a public document already available at Metro's website. Whittemore and others at the market say they've addressed the problems it raised, and the finance department's Office of Financial Accountability recently followed up to see how the market has responded to the initial review. "All findings appear to be adequately implemented or in process of being implemented," Fred Adom, the office's director, wrote in a cover letter accompanying the follow-up report released Tuesday.
But that's not likely to stanch the flood of requests.
"I haven't even begun to make public records requests," Jakes says. "You wait until they start giving me these records, on April 30. I guarantee you, I don't even know what's in there, but there'll be plenty of records for me to look at as a follow-up besides all that."
Metro officials say Jakes will receive the records he's seeking. They provided the first batch on April 1; they hope to provide another on April 30 and still another batch sometime after that, as soon as they can process the records. But in the weeks since the Scene uncovered some of the Jakes Files, he has moved beyond mere public records requests.
On April 12, Jakes showed up at the market and called the police to report that alcohol was being sold at AM@FM, in violation of the facility's rules and regulations. The responding officer, according to Metro police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford, informed Jakes that the restaurant had the proper permits and licenses to sell alcohol, and that his concern was not a criminal matter.
Metro officials say the market's lease with the state was amended several years ago to allow alcohol sales. Jakes says he doesn't "have a problem at all" with alcohol being sold at the market. His issue — the one he saw fit to bring to the attention of Metro police — is that the market's rules and regulations don't yet reflect that change. Whittemore tells the Scene that instead of piecemealing amendments to the policy, market officials have been working on a fresh set of regulations.
But that course of action has brought down the wrath of Jakes. In recent weeks, in emails obtained by the Scene, he has filed complaints against Whittemore with the Civil Service Commission and Mayor Karl Dean — complaints that he sent to an ever-growing list of individuals, including several members of the local press and state Rep. Courtney Rogers — asking that disciplinary actions be taken against her for "willfully and intentionally permit[ting] alcohol to be sold on the Market," regardless of permits or licenses.
Consider the watchdog officially off the chain.
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