Several County Commission members said Wednesday they want the County Attorney's Office to comply as expeditiously as possible with what County Attorney Rheubin Taylor referred to as a "voluminous" Open Records request from a mysterious group.
The requests for a large number of correspondence from a number of county officials, including County Mayor Jim Coppinger, came from a group called HamiltonCAN (Citizens Action Network).
County Attorney Taylor said the only name he had received from the group is someone named "Rawls."
The group declined to give any name of anyone involved, but said it is "comprised of multiple individuals across the county and some surrounding counties working under confidential anonymity due to the retaliatory nature of the people/groups being investigated. The open records request is a small piece of a much bigger investigation. We are keeping certain Federal groups involved in our research as there is no confidence in the local DA to get the job done."
The request and email back and forth from the requestor and the county attorney's office have been sent to all the County Commission members as well as members of the news media.
The group said to Dana Beltramo, of the County Attorney's office, "The request was very specific and gave the exact date ranges, systems and FOIA participants in the Open Records Request.
"It clearly states on every request on every line the date range 02/01/2019 - 02/02/2020:
- Chat Logs ( Jabber )
- Browser Search History
- Phone Logs
"We know exactly the what systems Hamilton County IT is using and this is a simple task to query the information and provide and extraction in electronic format, not paper redactions. It is becoming clear this is another attempt to violate the open records act and stone wall delivering of information.
"Please provide this information as requested on the original FOIA date as specified on the request in the timeframe specified by law. It maybe time to bring in Federal agencies to investigate these activities.
Thank You for your cooperation."
County Attorney Taylor said the group apparently expected the request completely filled within seven days. He said the law only requires the government to alert the requestor of receipt of the request within seven days.
However, he told the commission his office is proceeding with seeking to get the information. He said it will take some time to gather all the emails and other items and to go through for possible redactions.
Commissioner David Sharpe said, "I would like to encourage you to respond with transparency and exediently on all these requests."
Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said the group had made "some pretty big accusations. It is concerning to me that we may have missed the timeline."
She added, "I would like to make sure that we are doing what we are supposed to do and doing everything we need to comply."
At one point the Taylor office said the items from the Assessor's office should come from that office.
The HamiltonCAN responded that it had been advised that some county official had directed that the assessor's information not be provided until the March 3 election is passed.
Ms. Deltramo said the group may need to pay certain costs for the information.
She said in one email, "I am in receipt of your public records requests (copy attached). As to the records you've requested for Mr. Taylor, Mr. Compton, and Mayor Coppinger, I anticipate being able to send these materials to you on, or before, Wednesday, February 26, 2020.
"As to the records you've requested for Mr. Haynes, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Johnston, these records fall under the purview of Mr. Haynes who holds a constitutionally elected position. As such, Mr. Haynes' office is not subject to the Hamilton County General Government Public Records Policy. As a courtesy, I am hereby forwarding your request to Mr. Haynes. Please follow up with his office regarding these records. Thank you.
"After more carefully reviewing your request, I have realized that your request is quite broad and will require clarification in order to proceed. The records you appear to have requested will require production, review and redaction, for which an up-front charge will be assessed pursuant to the Hamilton County General Government Open Records policy and the Tennessee Open Records Act. Therefore, please provide clarification as to exactly what records you wish to receive, as terms such as “email,” even where limited by date, are simply too broad and vague to permit me to determine with specificity what records should be produced.
"Once I have a better idea of what specific records you’re requesting, I will be able to determine what, if any cost, will be associated with producing those records, and will apprise you accordingly. Thank you."
On the seven-day issue, the group said a section of state law says, “(B) The custodian of a public record or the custodian's designee shall promptly make available for inspection any public record not specifically exempt from disclosure. In the event it is not practicable for the record to be promptly available for inspection, the custodian shall, within seven (7) business days:
(i) Make the information available to the requestor;
(ii) Deny the request in writing or by completing a records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel. The response shall include the basis for the denial; or
(iii) Furnish the requestor a completed records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel stating the time reasonably necessary to produce the record or information.
(3) Failure to respond to the request as described in subdivision (a)(2) shall constitute a denial and the person making the request shall have the right to bring an action as provided in § 10-7-505.”
"We have received NO DATA on any request, even data on a deceased county employee in the Hamilton County Assessor of Property office. Why is that?
"2. Mr Taylor stated the records would be provided after “Redactions”
"The law makes very little provision for “Redactions”. This is not a Federal Agency, if there is fraud or crime being committed by rogue individuals in the county government these faux “redactions” may be used to hide their activities.
"There is a provision for in the code where law enforcement can access to unredacted information with 3 days of the request. This avenue may be explored with some Federal Agencies to circumvent the stone walling by Hamilton County Attorneys Office.
"“(c) (1) Except as provided in § 10-7-504(g), all law enforcement personnel records shall be open for inspection as provided in subsection (a); however, whenever the personnel records of a law enforcement officer are inspected as provided in subsection (a), the custodian shall make a record of such inspection and provide notice, within three (3) days from the date of the inspection, to the officer whose personnel records have been inspected:”
"3. Mr Taylor said it was a considerable amount of information to deliver.
"What Mr Taylor failed to mention that every request was an individual request, filed separately. These are electronic data request, hence a database query to extract the information can be done in a short amount of time and delivered in a Excel/CSV file format. There is no paper involved at all and these queries. This is a smoke screen by Mr Taylor to delay information.
"To date, no data for any request has been delivered, just excuses.
"4. Mr Taylor stated his office provided additional instructions on where to send the conflicting open records request. These emails were provided in previous correspondence.
"This is another stall tactic used by the Hamilton County Attorneys office to reset the clock with the new request to a different office, Assessor of Property. The end product is still delivered by the Hamilton County IT Department which services all county employees. The Assessor of Property DOES NOT have their own IT dept. This is another stall tactic and no conflict of interest here with the target of the request.
"5. Mr Taylor said they are working on the request.
"Mr Taylor has provided no timeline on delivering the materials and it has already been reported by sources they were told to stall the Open Records request until after election, which is violation of state law and potentially Federal Election Laws covering up illicit activities by a public officials to change the outcome of an election.
"The chronic behavior of the Hamilton County Attorneys office to thwart open records request, destroy information and violate transparency appears to be a systemic disease that infest parts of our county government and needs addressing by State Reps and Federal Agencies.
"Thank you again for looking out for citizens of Hamilton County and bringing the actions of the Hamilton County Attorney’s office to light for the public.
"Ms Beltramo, as we previously stated this record and others are from the Hamilton County IT Department which maintains all electronic records for county employees. The Property Assessor is not a special case. This is just another stall tactic.
"We have now turned over all information for these requests to Federal and State Law Enforcement. It is apparent there is something to hide. Additionally, we are investigating filing ethics violations against County attorneys who are culpable in covering up illicit activities.
"It was noted that your office stopped allowing receipt of open records request at County IT Facilities on Bonny Oaks, which had been customary in the past, in attempt to burden individuals making open records request. .
"Our request is very simple. These records are property of the public and under transparency should be provided to the public under TCA open records request.
"We look for your compliance."