County delete keys getting worked

February 1, 2008 11:54:31 AM PST
Deleted emails are not just a problem for Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. Very few emails are ever saved county wide, and when they're gone, you often times have no idea what your government is doing.

The delete key sure has been getting a lot of action by some Harris County officials lately. These are elected officials, leaders, people who are expected to know better.

Why?

In some cases, we're talking about government documents and the county attorney says deleting government records is the same as shredding.

That's in part why scandal has swirled around Chuck Rosenthal after he deleted 2,500 emails. This after a federal judge told him to turn them over.

That's why Sheriff Tommy Thomas was forced to change his email policy. Earlier this month, the sheriff unexpectedly ordered a broad deletion of all emails more than two weeks old throughout the department.

We recently asked Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler for four months of her emails. We got a total of five messages.

Siegler, a candidate for district attorney, says she used to get about 60 emails a day and that she printed the important documents and deleted the rest.

State law says anything to do with administration or policy has to saved for at least a year, and it doesn't matter if it's in your computer or on paper.

Ted Oberg: When Rosenthal deletes 2,500 emails, did he break the law?

Mike Stafford/Harris County Attorney: It depends which emails were deleted.

Oberg: Do you know which ones he deleted?

Stafford: No sir.

Oberg: Do you know which ones we can't see?

Stafford: No sir.

Oberg: Don't you think we should?

Stafford: I see the problem.

Stafford admits county employees need to be told what to save and their bosses need a way to find out if it's not being done.

"It's not just what it requires, it's being able to enforce it," Stafford said. "To get compliance, that's what you're looking for."

Because the Texas law that allows you or us to ask for this stuff says very clearly, that Texans "do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

"It's a question of open government," Stafford said.

Not to be too patriotic, but Americans have held the right to look at public documents since before our Constitution was written.

Harris County is working on developing a new email policy right now. The county attorney told Eyewitness News the new policy will clarify the rules, and save far more email messages.

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