Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration said a recent investigation into the destruction of records on former Mayor Sam Jones’ city-issued computer concluded “no ethics violations or laws were broken” by the unapproved erasure of its hard drive, which appears to have occurred sometime after Jones lost the election last year.
The order, which was carried out by an employee of the IT department, was brought to Stimpson’s attention shortly afterward by a pair of whistleblowers in the IT department. On May 16, City Attorney Ricardo Woods sent an email to the City Council calling the investigation a “non-issue” because “most if not all” of the city’s electronic documents are generated by departments outside the mayor’s office.
But that finding seems to fly in the face of state law, which states simply, “No county, municipal or other local government official shall cause any county, municipal, or other local government record to be destroyed or otherwise disposed of without first obtaining the approval of the Local Government Records Commission.”
Woods said he was unable to determine whether approval was ever sought to erase the hard drive, but Tom Turley, an archivist for the Alabama Department of Archives and History, said he received no destruction notices involving records from the mayor’s office for the period of time in question.
But “if the mayor’s office was operating on the principle that having a back-up allowed them to destroy the records without sending a notice, we wouldn’t have received one,” Turley concluded.
Indeed, Woods appeared to give the subject of the investigation the benefit of the doubt.
“If you’re looking at proving a negative, that’s an uphill battle,” he said. “I don’t know what’s on the computer because the information is unrecoverable. But throughout the months of this process we haven’t identified anything as missing. Every single email is backed-up on the server.”
Still, Turley and Woods appear to differ on what they consider “primary” and “secondary” records according to the law. From an archivist’s perspective, Turley said the records on the mayor’s computer would be the primary, “record” copies.
“I can’t comment, with any legal authority, as to whether anyone intended to break the records law, or even whether having a back-up in place should absolve the records’ primary custodian from violating the law,” he wrote. “My only conclusion … is that the records on the mayor’s computer were the ‘record copy.’”
Another non-finding of Woods’ investigation was who ordered the erasure. Lagniappe was told by a source familiar with the order that it was requested by Barbara Drummond, Jones’ former communications manager.
Drummond would not immediately take an opportunity to comment for this article, but told Woods in November the allegations her were “blatantly false” and maintained her innocence during a television interview last week, suggesting the investigation was an attack against her political campaign for state legislature.
“All I can do is tell you what turned up factually,” Woods said about his conclusions. “We don’t make allegations or finding of facts without corroborating evidence so you need either two witnesses or one witness and findings of facts. We know somebody blew the whistle and there was an erased hard drive. What they tell you afterward is another story and I cannot corroborate it.”
Woods said there were also “rumors” whoever ordered Jones’ computer erased was also seeking to do the same to others in the office.
“You can’t go out and accuse someone of a crime if there is no evidence of a crime,” he said.
Turley, in an abundance of caution, said if city officials follow the law strictly, in most cases a hard drive should not be erased without a destruction notice. But he also said a notice can be filed after-the-fact.
According to Section 13A-10-12 of the Code of Alabama, violating the public records law is a Class A Misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and up to a $6,000 fine. Turley noted that no enforcement procedure is set up in the Code, and neither the local records commission nor the state department of archives has any enforcement capability.
“Practically speaking, the only way of punishing violations of the records law is to take the offender to court,” Turley said.
Rob Holbert contributed to this report.