Doral council members Pete Cabrera and Christi Fraga finally surrendered their cellphones after a Florida court’s third request to do so. Cabrera at first refused, calling it a “violation of my civil rights,” and Fraga was in labor at the time of the order.
In late January, 12 Doral city officials were ordered to turn over their personal and city phones as part of a 2014 legal dispute between the city and SDE Media, a billboard company that sued the city and the council, claiming a violation of the Sunshine Law. Since then, 10 city officials complied and turned in their phones for copying of texts, voicemails and emails.
But to whom Cabrera and Fraga submitted their phones on Feb. 12 has raised questions. According Judge William Thomas’ most recent order filed in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court in January, Epiq Systems Inc. was the company designated by the court to copy and secure all city officials’ phone records, review the data and then deliver any responsive public records to the city within 10 days.
But on Feb. 12, the city retained the copied data, which now sits in the Doral Police Department’s evidence room.
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“It’s better this way,” Cabrera told the Miami Herald last week. “Now my personal information is not floating around in strangers’ hands. I trust our police, and I know my information is safe there.”
When Cabrera agreed to turn in his phone, he had conditions: That he be present while they copy the data off his phone onto a hard drive, and that the hard drive be put in a lock box that would require two keys to open — one by his attorney, the other by Epiq Systems Inc.
SDE Media’s legal team had not agreed to those terms. The city and SDE Media had ultimately reached an agreement that there would be no lock box and that Epiq would maintain custody of the data copied from the phones. And so the transaction went forward at City Hall on Feb 12.
City Attorney Dan Espino, Cabrera, Fraga, Councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez and City Manager Edward Rojas were present. They were accompanied by two Doral police officials.
Once an Epiq technician was done cloning Cabrera’s data, Cabrera and Espino insisted that it remain in the hands of Doral police, not Epiq. Fraga asked that her data be handled the same way.
Rodriguez and Rojas, who originally turned in their phones in January, had to have them re-imaged after a technical glitch. When Rodriguez came in on Feb. 12, she said she lost the original phone she had submitted to Epiq and brought in an older one. Espino had Rodriguez and Rojas’ information kept at the police department as well.
All other city officials’ phones that were turned in on Jan. 21 were surrendered to Epiq. Police officials told the Miami Herald the arrangements to secure the data in the evidence room were made by Doral’s attorneys after Cabrera said he had to “protect his clients’ medical information.”
Police officials indicated that they thought Epiq was to retain an extra copy of the imaged data and that the police had possession of another for safe keeping.
“We wanted to establish a chain of custody that kept the information secure and that would identify everyone that had contact with it,” Espino said. “Mr. Cabrera had expressed some concerns so we wanted to see if it was something we can accomplish.”
On Monday, Doral’s legal team filed a motion urging the court to allow the city attorney, a defendant in the lawsuit, to search the records, rather than Epiq.
Anthony Alfieri, a professor and the director of the Center for Ethics & Public Service at the University of Miami’s School of Law, said the “circumstances are extraordinary and indicate a deliberate attempt to disregard the authority of Florida courts.”
“The situation does seem replete with conflicts of interest among city officials and raises serious doubts about their good faith and accountability,” Alfieri said.
Espino said “this Council recognizes that this entire scenario involving the records is as a result of a billboard company, through separate litigation, wanting another billboard location in the City, and they are standing strong against a special interest.”
Early this week Doral made a move very similar to SDE Media’s.
“Our concern over SDE’s lawyer’s involvement and significant communication with Epiq has led us to file a request for production for communications between and amongst SDE, Mr. Julin, and Epiq, including all emails, text messages, and call logs,” Espino told the Herald in an email.
In his motion, Espino added: “The Order requires that phones be turned over to a third-party entity selected solely by plaintiff and without any safeguards in place to protect those privacy interests from the independent actions of that entity and its employees. When combined with the directive that no messages of any kind — regardless of their nature or connection with the Public Records Request — be deleted from the phones before they were turned over, the invasion of privacy (and abuse of discretion) becomes overwhelming.”
Both the city and SDE Media are waiting for a court hearing to be scheduled.