(LifeSiteNews) – Dear Rep. Burchett,
On December 31, 2021, fire destroyed the Planned Parenthood Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, and within days, the Knoxville Fire Department determined that the fire had been intentionally set. You might remember that this was a national news story. At the time of the fire, the building had been closed for renovation and expansion.
On November 1, 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) posthumously named Mark Thomas Reno as the arsonist, based in part on a conversation with Reno that was surreptitiously recorded by an undercover investigator for the Knoxville Fire Department on April 26, 2022. This is the recording we are asking you to subpoena from the FBI. The same DOJ memo states that Reno died in the custody of U.S. Marshals on August 15, 2022, while awaiting trial on unrelated charges.
We have requested this video in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). After a delay of more than 90 days (and some pressure from your office) the FBI acknowledged having the recording, but denied our request on the grounds that releasing it would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of privacy” for Mark Reno and unduly disclose law-enforcement methods [5 USC §§ 552 (b)(6), (b)(7)(C), and (b)(7)(E)]. We have appealed this denial to the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), because these are not legitimate exceptions in this case.
Regarding privacy, the requested recording was cited as evidence in a legal affidavit made by FBI Agent Thomas Calhoon on September 13, 2022, which alleged that Reno intentionally set the Planned Parenthood fire [§§26-27, Calhoon affidavit]. This allegation was made after Reno’s death. If the FBI had made this allegation against Reno while he was still alive, it would have had to produce this record as evidence in a public forum. The FBI’s obligation to produce this record is even greater, not less, because Reno was deceased at the time of the accusation and thus unable to mount any defense of his own.
(The FBI’s sudden concern for Reno’s privacy is rather rich, don’t you think? Let me see if I have this straight: The FBI uses a secret recording to publicly accuse a dead man of a terrible crime, and then claims that it can’t possibly release that recording, because doing so would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the dead man’s privacy. Yes, I’m quite sure that’s what our Founding Fathers had in mind with the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution.)
Regarding law-enforcement methods, the method by which this recording was obtained is already a matter of public record, because Agents Mann and Calhoon told us all about it in their affidavits. It was surreptitiously recorded by an undercover investigator for the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD). This is just body-cam video. The KFD agent engaged Reno, because his red truck matched the description of the truck seen by the original 911 caller. There is nothing particularly sophisticated about this investigative technique.
(Note: We have also requested this recording from the City of Knoxville, but they have denied having custody of it, even though it was created by an employee of the City in the course of performing his official duties as an investigator for the Knoxville Fire Department. Thus, we also continue to pursue this recording under the Tennessee Open Records Act, but we have little hope of satisfaction on that track either.)
Although we have appealed the FOIA denial, we expect that our appeal will be delayed and denied. And so, we turn to you for help as our elected representative. The public has a right to this video recording no matter what it reveals.
We have questions about FBI Agent Thomas Calhoon’s summarization of aspects of this recorded conversation. He wrote: “Reno made several statements about the destruction of the [Planned Parenthood] Center and a plan to burn the Center when reconstruction began. Reno also indicated that he had conducted surveillance on the remaining clinic (Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health) and had developed a plan to burn this clinic [§27, Calhoon affidavit].”
The reasons we are suspicious of this summarization are these:
A. An earlier affidavit by a different FBI agent cites the very same April 26 recording of Reno [§5-8, Mann affidavit]. However, in her description of this recording, FBI Agent Mann makes no mention whatsoever of Reno’s talking about abortion clinics. Although this earlier affidavit was made pursuant to an arrest warrant on other charges, it’s hard to imagine that Reno could have talked about burning abortion clinics without any mention about it from Agent Mann. This is especially true, because Agent Mann made her affidavit on July 15, 2022, within weeks of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which issued on June 24, 2022.
B. In Calhoon’s affidavit, the presentation of the recording is in a place that is logically wrong. There is a section in Agent Calhoon’s affidavit subtitled “December 2021 Arson at the Center in Knoxville, TN,” wherein he presents other evidence that Reno was the Planned Parenthood arsonist. The presentation of the April 26 recording should be included in this earlier section of the affidavit, as Calhoon claims it contains evidence against Reno as the arsonist. However, the recording is not presented in this section about arson. Rather, Calhoon’s presentation of the recording comes in a later section of the affidavit; this later section is subtitled “July 3 2022 Destruction of Property at the Federal Building.” Was this sloppy organization, or a Freudian slip? We suspect that on this recording, Reno indeed made threatening statements against federal property and institutions, but not against Knoxville abortion clinics. This would be consistent with Agent Mann’s description of the recording.
C. The Knoxville Fire Department did not consider Reno a suspect in the Planned Parenthood fire, even though one of its own made this recording. On September 29, 2022, I personally spoke with Mark Wilbanks, Assistant Chief for the Knoxville Fire Department. He told me that KFD had no suspects in the case, and that KFD had not had any active leads since June of 2022. Wilbanks further stated that he frequently asked KFD investigators for updates on the progress of the investigation. I also spoke with Wilbanks on the morning of November 1, 2022, and he told me that he was surprised by the allegations contained in the DOJ press release that day. Why didn’t KFD consider Reno a suspect, if a KFD investigator had recorded him talking about burning Knoxville abortion clinics?
D. The FBI’s reluctance to release this recording is telling in itself. It took the FBI more than 90 days to respond to our FOIA request for a single record. Then they denied the request based on absurd claims to exemption. Are we really to believe that the FBI is in possession of a recording in which a white Catholic man talks about burning abortion clinics, and none of us have seen it on the evening news?
Rep. Burchett, this fire occurred in your congressional district, and the citizens you represent have every right to this recording. It is a bellwether for the entire federal investigation into this fire. If the FBI does not produce this recording, then the whole investigation is suspect.
Will you go down as one who is content to “trust the process”? Or will you take an active role in helping us learn the whole truth about this fire?
Please put the full weight of your authority into getting this recording and delivering it to the people you represent.
Author’s note: Readers may call Rep. Burchett’s office at 865.523.3772 to ask respectfully that he help make public the FBI recording of Mark Thomas Reno made on April 26, 2022.