OPINION | EPLUNUS COLVIN: On the record at last

Off the record: not made as an official or attributable statement.

"All this is off the record."

This by far is the hardest thing I have ever had to do as a young journalist.

What started out as a personal wellness check on Maurice Taggart over seven months ago, when the allegations of him misappropriating money from the Urban Renewal Agency were being investigated by the State Police, resulted in an outlet where Maurice would be able to share his side of the story ... off the record.

It was off the record for many reasons and I understood why. He was accused of misappropriating close to $700,000 from the Urban Renewal Agency and was later hit with more than 80 criminal charges. Maurice, being an attorney himself, knew he couldn't go on record with his side of the story being printed in the newspaper. He shared with me that this was bigger than him and he had information that would implicate others based on text messages on his phone, emails and even a private journal that he kept.

He shared with me his hurt, his disappointments, his pain, how his current situations were challenging his mental wellness, and his fear ... often referring to himself as a "sacrificial lamb."

I would send him relevant newspaper articles upon his request the first thing in the morning when I woke because his requests would come in at 3 a.m. When the average person is asleep, he was not.

With every news story he read that implicated his failures and faults, he shared his rebuttals and responses off-record with a promise that as soon as he had his day in court, he would tell his truth.

He agreed to allow me to document our off-record conversations and when I look back at it now, only God knew how vital these conversations would be in this moment. Around the second week of August – not long before his life would come to an end – at his request, I stopped recording our conversations.

He would sometimes tell me: "I fear for my life."

Though the recordings stopped, our conversations continued almost daily with our last one taking place the day before he was shot and killed.

The morning of his death I was expecting a call from him as he was interested in the special meeting held by city council committee members that afternoon concerning the 2017 Sales Tax and the Public Safety Tax and the efforts of Go Forward Pine Bluff to put them back on the ballot for a special election.

Maurice was slowly resurfacing into the political scene, like a ghost, because he had been out of the spotlight since the charges were filed against him around mid-year.

Making a ZOOM appearance on Aug. 18, which displayed his name, Maurice Taggart, during the city council committee meeting in which the tax was being discussed, Maurice said that alone would make people uncomfortable.

He even sent The Commercial a letter to the editor that was actually supposed to run during that same time frame in August, but he asked that we pull it because the timing was not right. Instead, he asked that we publish it closer to early voting. (It is in today's edition.)

"There's no need for me to put out one of my letters because that's not going to sway the council. It's going on the ballot because they have the votes. I'll wait to speak to the people directly," said Maurice on Friday, Aug. 18 in a text message.

But speaking to the people directly, for Maurice, that never happened.

On Aug. 30, instead of getting a call from Maurice to talk about the news and wanting to discuss how certain council members were going to vote on the tax, I got a call about him.

"Maurice was shot and killed. Maurice is dead."

It's still hard to believe that he is gone, but his voice still lingers in my head.

I've always considered myself a journalist who is a voice for the voiceless. Even before working for The Commercial, my stint with the Stuttgart Daily Leader before its closing showed my "watchdog reporting" of several entities throughout Arkansas County, with one story that made headlines and a byline in USA Today.

But this situation was different. It felt different. I felt different. I felt scared, hurt, confused. Now that Maurice was dead and gone, did that mean his voice was gone as well?

That's when God spoke to me. God showed me my purpose and why in 2019 he opened up a door for me to serve Pine Bluff and Jefferson County.

It had nothing to do with me, but it was for the outcry of God's people. I realized God's timing is always on time and God was using me as a vessel because God knows all and God sees all. God made a way for Maurice to still be able to speak directly to the people through me.

But just as Maurice shared his fears with me, I battled with the fears of what would come like threats, setbacks and challenges. I talked to my husband, who is a law enforcement official, about my concerns, and we prayed about it on a regular basis.

I also considered now with Maurice gone, I was the last line of defense that the community had. I would need to step out on faith with courage, be a steadfast guardian and allow Maurice's voice to be heard.

I know this will make life difficult for people and institutions that have money or power or both, but I must do what is right and what is fair. Some of these people are people I admire, respect and have formed professional relationships with, most of whom have gone "on record" to tell their version of the story with The Commercial.

I have empathy for those named in Maurice's story because I believe no one is a "bad person" but instead we make "bad decisions." I've even shared those same sentiments with Maurice in his position and how God had afforded him an opportunity to "right his wrongs," something he said he was striving to do daily.

Maurice never had a chance to speak on the record, with him being the centerpiece and focal point of almost every news story that we printed during the allegations of misappropriation of funds within the Urban Renewal Agency.

If I am to be a gatekeeper of news, I must now allow him that opportunity. I must serve the public and provide them with Maurice's truth as well. It's my responsibility to provide unbiased journalism and accuracy and it's on all of us to hold others accountable for their actions.

Investigative journalism can stir up a lot in society and it will put a target on my back, I'm sure. I've always said what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong, no matter who you are and what position you hold. I'm not looking to be a hero by doing the right thing. Being an advocate for justice and a journalist is a thankless profession and I am learning to be OK with that.

I am aware of the dangers that may follow where those in power may feel threatened by some of the exposure that Maurice has shared but as a self-respecting journalist and a child of God who possesses integrity ... God has not given me a spirit of fear.

This is when my integrity becomes bravery.

Maurice Taggart, you're "On The Record" now.

Rest In Peace.

Eplunus "E" Colvin is a reporter for the Pine Bluff Commercial.