Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio learns the meaning of "backup" when all those deleted emails are recovered for a federal subpoena


So just whose e-mails are they?

On orders from Maricopa County, a third-party vendor has archived an unknown quantity of e-mails written by Maricopa County Sheriff's Office personnel since August 2008.

The Sheriff's Office says the e-mails belong to them, and they should have been deleted from an emergency backup system after 28 days.

County management says the e-mails are county property. And the messages play into two federal cases, a racial-profiling civil lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and an FBI criminal investigation into Arpaio's office, so they refused to turn them over to the sheriff.

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A Pima County judge will try to sort out ownership in an emergency hearing Wednesday morning.

The issue first arose in February when the Sheriff's Office claimed in the civil lawsuit that e-mails concerning Arpaio's controversial "crime-suppression operations" had been deleted from the system. The federal judge imposed sanctions against the office.

But last week, county officials announced they had recovered the e-mails - though actually, they had been archived.

The news caught the Sheriff's Office by surprise.

On Friday afternoon, Sheriff's Commander Bob Rampy confronted county technology managers and demanded the e-mails be turned over to him, first by e-mail and later in person. County officials turned Rampy down.

County lawyers filed an emergency motion for an order of protection against the Sheriff's Office with the Pima County judge, who is handling an ongoing case between the county and the sheriff over management of a county law-enforcement computer database.

In that motion, attorney Julie Pace, who represents the county, revealed that not only were some of the e-mails subject to the racial-profiling suit, but that other, unspecified e-mails also had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury investigating Arpaio's office. The two sets of e-mails may overlap, but county officials will not reveal the contents of the latest subpoena.

Judge Theodore Borek, who was assigned to the computer case last year, granted the order of protection and set a hearing for Wednesday in Tucson.

Eric Dowell, an attorney representing the Sheriff's Office, said the Sheriff's Office was not aware that its e-mails had been archived since August 2008, following an order by another attorney for the county in an unrelated lawsuit involving county officials.

"They never once told anybody that for the last two and half years, they've been backing up every single e-mail," Dowell said. "If some attorney is looking at my attorney-client e-mails, there are going to be some ethical problems."

Dowell said the initial request for e-mails was based on word searches relevant to the racial-profiling case. But he did not know the extent of the federal grand jury subpoena.

"We don't know what the county has turned over, but what we do know is that someone at (the U.S. Department of Justice) is reviewing the e-mails," he said.

But Pace said that e-mail from all county departments except the County Attorney's Office and the libraries are archived in the same manner.

And Pace said that the backup e-mails are on data tapes that are inaccessible to the company that maintains them.

"They can't read them and don't read them," she said. "Only they (the Sheriff's Office) know what's in those e-mails."

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