Monday, November 20, 2017
Politics

Attorney says missing emails prove Attorney General Pam Bondi's office violated records laws

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TALLAHASSEE — A Tallahassee attorney engaged in a bitter property fight with the state is accusing Attorney General Pam Bondi of destroying emails, failing to retain text messages and violating the state's public records laws.

Bondi, the chief custodian of the state's Sunshine law, has acknowledged some documents were inadvertently missing from the records request of Stephen R. Andrews but vigorously rejects his claims.

"These allegations are without merit,'' said Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray.

In court documents filed this week in Leon County Circuit Court, Andrews portrays a department that allows employees to manually delete emails before they are archived, relies on an outdated email archival system and allows metadata to routinely be destroyed.

He claims at least in 19 instances emails were destroyed and the attorney general's office failed to properly retain text messages after he filed a request for a document hold.

Andrews said he discovered the omissions only after he cross-referenced the emails he received from the attorney general through a public records search with those obtained from other agencies. He is asking a judge for a forensic search of all backup servers and storage devices at the agency.

Ray refused requests to explain what the department's policy is regarding retaining emails and text messages.

Bondi's attorney, Stephanie A. Daniel, has responded in court documents that the department has produced more than 6,700 pages of private emails, calendars and text messages and denies it is violating any public records laws. She also accuses Andrews of being unwilling to cooperate and often slow to reply for requests for clarification on his numerous public records requests.

Andrews' public records feud began in 2012 when the Department of Environmental Protection tried to shield from public view a memo and maps that detailed a proposed Governor's Park, a six block by three-and-a-half block area in downtown Tallahassee.

The land once belonged to former Gov. LeRoy Collins and includes the office building on which Andrews' law firm resides. The governor and Cabinet voted to buy the property two years ago, in spite of a contract between Andrews and the Collins estate that allowed him to buy his office building.

Andrews filed suit and a judge ordered the state to release the documents. He has been in litigation since then and has made numerous records requests for documents from the governor and Cabinet officials.

In court documents, Bondi's attorney admits that some documents were missing from the department's public records given to Andrews because of several factors, including "an oversight,'' a "technology error" and "a copy and pasting error."

Andrews claims that at least 61 emails have been shielded from the public record. When he asked for documents to be turned over, he claims the agency repeatedly failed to use the proper search terms.

Daniel acknowledged that Andrews had received emails from staff at the attorney general's office from another agency but "the omission to produce this handful of emails was an oversight, and in no way the result of a refusal to provide records."

Andrews also found an email from Deborah Stevens, the department's director of Information Technology, citing a 2012 newspaper article about a City of Sarasota policy that inadvertently allowed employees to delete emails before they are archived. Stevens wrote that the attorney general's office has "an even bigger vulnerability than the City of Sarasota" and, Andrews alleged, did nothing about it.

The department also acknowledged that some emails appeared to be redacted and obscured but that was "the result of a technology error" and so the emails were produced again.

When the department did this, it discovered that another oversight had excluded additional emails from Jennifer Meale, the department's communications director, "due to a copy and pasting error."

While Andrews claims that text messages were not retained, the attorney general claims there were no text messages ever sent related to the property dispute, and therefore further searching was unnecessary. Andrews said that is a violation of the state's public records act.

Andrews, who is investigating similar records claims against the Executive Office of the Governor, the Department of State and the Department of Environmental Protection, is asking a judge to order a forensic review of Bondi's computers.

Daniel has asked the judge to dismiss the request because Andrews hasn't demonstrated that they failed to supply the records.

Bondi claimed that her office "diligently strived to produce all requested records" including searches of office and private email accounts of employees, personal devices and voice mails and text messages.

They produced additional emails and Master Email lists and the office only learned of additional issues when Andrews amended his request. The subsequent searches produced "a handful of emails that were not previously produced."

The department said, however, that it "has no way to search active Lotus Notes email across all employees" but that data must be searched on individual workstations of each employee. It rejected Andrews' request to search the archived emails of all 1,100 employees in the agency, saying that would have been expensive and time-consuming.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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