ATTORNEY GENERAL

Attorney says missing emails prove Bondi’s office violated records laws

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

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 her office 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Andrews portrays a department that allows employees to manually delete emails before they are archived, relies on an outdated email archival system and allows metadata to routinely be destroyed.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 that in at least 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 they are violating any public records laws. She also accuses Andrews of being unwilling to cooperate and often slow to reply 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 now home to Andrews’ law firm. 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 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 proper search terms.

Daniel wrote in a response to the Andrews’ allegations last month 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 being 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.

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 the judge to order a forensic review of Bondi’s computers.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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