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Pinellas Housing Authority accuses former director of deleting e-mails

The Pinellas County Housing Authority is accusing its former director of destroying public records by secretly deleting e‑mail he received on the job.

A forensic audit showed e‑mail to Darrell Irions' county account was forwarded to his Yahoo account. The originals were deleted from the government server, according to a letter from housing authority attorney Frazier Carraway.

"These records have been illegally purloined from PCHA who is obliged by law to maintain them," Carraway wrote March 4 to a lawyer for Irions, who left the county agency after a dispute last year. He remains chief executive of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.

Irions denied deleting any messages from the county's e‑mail server, which could violate Florida's open records law and carry misdemeanor charges and $500 fines.

"All the information they're asking for, it should be on that server. We don't know why, other than they were in such a hurry to get rid of me, that it would be deleted," Irions said.

The county housing authority also found that Irions conducted authority business on his personal Yahoo e-mail account, and the authority didn't have records of that communication until recently.

In March, Irions turned over a disc with 1,395 pages of records. A version the county provided to the St. Petersburg Times this week had as many or more finance reports and memos as e‑mails.

Irions acknowledged that he asked an agency computer specialist to set up his e-mail to forward to the Yahoo account during his five-year stint as the county agency's chief executive. He also acknowledged using the Yahoo account to send e-mail about housing authority business. Not providing the Yahoo mail to the county was an oversight, he said.

Richard Harrison, an attorney for the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, had some harsh words for the county authority's attorneys.

The accusations of lawbreaking are "defamatory" and put Carraway and his firm at risk for a libel case, Harrison wrote in a March 15 letter that accompanied Irions' Yahoo records. County housing officials put on a "disgraceful display of partisan political hackery by individuals who ought to be held to a higher standard of conduct," he wrote.

He also accused the county of misunderstanding how the mail server worked. This week, Bob Brennecke, a computer specialist for the St. Petersburg and Clearwater housing authorities, supported Irions' account. At one time, when the St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Pinellas housing authorities operated jointly, Brennecke oversaw the e-mail server. He said Irions did not delete any e-mails, though he said he didn't personally verify that Irions' county e-mails were still on the server.

But county housing authority attorneys contend they still don't have every e-mail. So the Pinellas board voted 4-1 last week to sue to obtain any missing records.

No case has been filed yet, but board chairman Joe Triolo said a lawsuit is necessary for the agency to carry out its obligation to maintain public records. The agency even asked Yahoo to make sure Irions' records are preserved.

Board member and St. Petersburg lawyer Charles Samaha opposed going to court because he hadn't received enough evidence to justify suing.

Even as the county accuses Irions of destroying public records, it has refused to provide details about the findings by its auditing firm, E-Hounds of Clearwater. E-Hounds president Adam Sharp declined to comment on the results, too. There was no written report, and findings were discussed in a conference call.

The agency also had its law firm, Saxon, Gilmore, Carraway & Gibbons of Tampa, hire the forensic specialists, which avoided a public bid process. Liane Caruso, an agency spokeswoman, said using the law firm "was simply a time issue."

Irions left his county job after surviving a 3-2 vote to fire him in April 2009. That led the multimillion-dollar agencies to split up. Triolo and former board member Thomas Minkoff questioned Irions' handling of a joint headquarters project for the city and county agencies.

Late last year, the county filed open records complaints to the State Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's Office against the city agency after the city authority sought nearly $20,000 in payment for a large e-mail record request. No one pursued charges, a result still on the minds of county officials.

"I think the Pinellas County Housing Authority seems to have an unhealthy obsession with Darrell Irions," Harrison said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas Housing Authority accuses former director of deleting e-mails 04/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 9:41am]
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