13 Undercover wins legal email battle

April 8, 2008 4:18:47 PM PDT
13 Undercover asked for thousands of deleted emails from Sheriff Tommy Thomas. Now, after weeks of fighting for our legal right to see those emails, we will finally get the chance. The ruling out of the 281st District Court says the sheriff's department email policy put into place on January 9 violates state law, and the judge says they cannot ever enact a policy like this one again.

The email policy was ordered in place by the sheriff's department on January 9 -- two days after 13 Undercover reporter Wayne Dolcefino interviewed Sheriff Thomas as part of multiple investigative reports. The policy ordered all departmental emails more than 14 days old be deleted.

KTRK attorney John Edwards said, "Obviously, we don't want our public officials hiding behind the use of emails and trying to protect them from disclosure."

Edwards says that's when Dolcefino worked with him to file a restraining order to prevent 750,000 emails from being removed. The case went on to court. Today's ruling by Judge Bernal is a victory for Dolcefino.

"We are obviously very pleased, not only for Mr. Dolcefino, but frankly the taxpayers of Harris County who now will no longer be denied access to what we've contended all along was public information," Edwards said.

The ruling says the sheriff's department email policy violated state law and tells the department they can never enact a policy like this one again. Deputies must make all the emails available to Dolcefino within two weeks, and the department must pay Wayne's attorneys fees. That means the sheriff's department's decision to fight the original request will cost taxpayers $30,000.

"We've been surprised all along that this lawsuit was necessary," Edwards said. "Frankly, this mass deletion of 750,000 emails was unprecedented in our view."

First Assistant County Attorney John Barnhill told Eyewitness News, "We've spoken with the Harris County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff Tommy Thomas has requested that we file an appeal in this case on his behalf. Accordingly we will file a notice of appeal."

We also talked to democratic candidate for county attorney Vince Ryan, who says he is a firm believer the more open the government the better and that doesn't seem to be the case in Harris County right now.

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