Sheriff email battle continues

May 27, 2008 9:30:57 PM PDT
13 Undercover goes back to court where high ranking Harris County Sheriff's Department officials get a lecture from a judge after sworn testimony turns out to not be true. It may be just one email, but the sheriff's office is trying to explain why it was trying to destroy a key piece of evidence, which has now been subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating that office.

Remember when the sheriff defended that mass deletion of 750,000 emails in the midst of the Ibarra lawsuit? High ranking commanders testified under oath that emails being deleted detailing investigations had been saved.

"Don't worry judge, it exists somewhere else and now we know it doesn't," said Judge David Bernal of the 281st Civil Court in a hearing.

Judge Bernal was reacting to our stories last week. It was our discovery of an email detailing surveillance of the brothers who had sued the sheriff's office for civil rights violations. It is the only written evidence of a surveillance operation now under criminal investigation by a grand jury.

"It was going to be deleted with all these other 750,000 emails if we hadn't stepped in and that's a fact," said KTRK attorney John Edwards.

The county's explanation was it was the only email being destroyed that should have been saved. The judge wasn't buying it.

"I can't take the representation that it's the only one," said Judge Bernal. "It appears to be is that the more time we spend on this, we get another one."

The sheriff's office also sought for days to keep the email a law enforcement secret.

"That email was produced for lack of a better word not voluntarily," the judge said.

That's why 13 Undercover complained that having the sheriffs special assistant making the call on what the public sees, simply won't do going forward. The pace of email inspection is going too slowly.

"At that rate it would take two years to do accomplish the review and inspection," Edwards said "That is not what was represented in court."

We have the latest claim from the sheriff's office that his secret squad didn't document surveillance or use of surveillance equipment.

Of course the elected sheriff still refuses to answer these questions as his department was chastised for failing to live up to court orders.

"I didn't think it was a good faith effort," Judge Bernal said.

The judge's order today will speed up the inspection and give Channel 13 a chance to look at every single email, with the judge, not the sheriff's office deciding what stays secret. What else will we find? Stay tuned.

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