As I wrote in yesterday’s post, my request regarding Jim Tolbert’s use of social media got me thinking about officials using private devices and how that affects open records requests. On July 13, 2016 I posted “Jim Tolbert Open Records Requests and Social Media Channels”. As I wrote on that post, I had started to see the rising trend of using social media channels for government communications. Along with that, I started to wonder how governments were dealing with public records that reside on personal email accounts or devices. That train of thought also led me to wonder if public officials were now going to use private accounts or devices to keep certain communications away from the public eye. When my post came out, the controversy involving Greg Allen’s comments about Black Lives Matter and Veronica Escobar’s letter to city council gave me an opportunity to dig deeper.
As I have been thinking about this for a while and wondering how I was going to pursue it, the controversy between Greg Allen and Veronica Escobar gave me something I could test it out on. Because of previous open records requests, I knew the private email addresses that Susie Byrd, and her close ally, Veronica Escobar often use. As I wrote yesterday, Greg Allen controversy led me to file four open records requests asking for any emails, actually documents, but my focus was emails that were sent or received from the private email addresses of Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar and some city elected officials. The city officials I requested the records from were Oscar Leeser, Lily Limon, Claudia Ordaz, Peter Svarzbein and Jim Tolbert.
My request was limited to the dates “between July 7, 2016 and July 13, 2016.” I purposely selected these dates as a result of the controversy involving Greg Allen’s comments about the Black Lives Matter group.
Not many of you are aware that filing official open records requests is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, without a magnet. The problem is that for whatever reason, sometimes purposely, not all of the records are released to the requestor. For my part, I do not trust the City of El Paso to honestly deal with my open records requests. I believe that this is an institutional problem.
As a result, I file requests for information based on who might have a link to a missing document that I can track later with a more specific request. In this particular case, I know that Claudia Ordaz and Jim Tolbert are close allies with both Susie Byrd and Veronica Escobar. I am not really sure about Peter Svarzbein, at this point. Oscar Leeser and Lily Limon, in this case, were my litmus test. I did not really expect to receive responsive documents from their accounts but if I did they might lead me to a document that someone else may purposely, or mistakenly be withholding from me. Requesting documents this way has proven beneficial in helping me track down those documents that are withheld from me.
I share this with you today because I hope you learn from it and start to use the same technique as well and to let you know that I ask for records with a specific purpose in mind. Just because I ask for the records of one indiviudal does not mean that my target is that individual. The individual is a means to an end. This way, sometimes, a responsive document many not answer the question I was looking for an answer to, but it may become a piece to the puzzle to another request I am working on.
The other problem is that by the time the government entity has responded to my request, sometimes taking a month or more, the original issue is now long past and is no longer of interest to many of you. In other words, the topic has become stale. There is nothing I can do to speed up the process.
There is also the problem about cost. I can’t just file requests for long date ranges because these may lead to costs associated with producing the record. The last time I paid for a request, about $40, it resulted in many pages of documents that were nothing more than newsletters and advertisements sent back and forth between individuals. That particular request produced nothing of value and it cost me about $40. As you can see, I have to be careful when I file my open records requests.
Nonetheless, my experiment has produced some leads that I believe will be interesting to most of you. It also appears to me that elected officials are now starting to realize that they can use “personal” devices and techniques dreamt up by legal scholars to allow them to avoid public scrutiny even more.
There is one particular case that came up that I will be writing about next week. I am waiting on one specific item that may expose one elected official’s obvious attempt to hide behind a personal device to keep their activities away from you. Stay tuned.