The Hamilton County Attorney's Office destroyed 98% of records requested by the Times Free Press, amid a disagreement over reasonable charges. The fight for the records, which were requested six months ago this week, continued past the destruction of the records for four months before the office admitted destroying the more than 1,400 pages of documents in question.
Questions about the office's compliance with public records laws were raised in the summer of 2019 when county attorneys initially unlawfully denied a different request by the paper, asserting that they do not provide any records from their office, despite serving as the custodian of county general records.
"If it comes into [the county attorney's] office, it's privileged," records coordinator Dana Beltramo said in July, "Our stuff is off limits."
While the paper ultimately received a partial sample of the records responsive to that request, the paper filed another request on Aug. 5 to inspect all records requests received by the office and the office's responses to them over a one-year period, in order to examine the office's record request practices.
The office estimated that the request would contain 1,500 pages of records and asked that the Times Free Press pay $717 in advance to inspect the records, which the paper refused to do. According to multiple state records experts, and the office's own request form, a requester cannot be charged for the inspection of records under Tennessee State law.
The paper and attorney's office exchanged dozens of emails and phone calls debating the legality of the charge, until the office provided part of the request — more than 200 pages of documents — digitally in late January.
The county only provided a sample of 268 pages of correspondence responsive to the request, spanning eight of the twelve months requested; and a letter from Beltramo stating for the first time the destruction of related documents.
WE NEED YOUR HELP
If you filed an open records request with the county between Aug. 1, 2018 - Aug. 1 2019, we want to hear from you. Please send your request and correspondence with the attorney's office to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us at (423)757-6416.
"Because there is no statute regarding retention of public records requests, the Hamilton County Public Records Commission met October 2, 2019, and determined that requests and related correspondence need only be retained for a period of 30 days," Beltramo wrote, explaining that the records provided were all responsive records received via mail or otherwise scanned and saved.
Drafted minutes of the October meeting, which took place two months after the request was filed, show that Beltramo asked for and was unanimously granted authority to destroy public records requests and responses after 30 days.
The minutes also say "[Beltramo] stated that 98% of the requests are in the form of emails."
Beltramo did not respond to multiple requests for an interview by phone and in person late last week.
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who participated in the meeting as well as discussions about the Times Free Press request and fees, denies the destruction was related in any way to the paper's request.
"When the [public records commission] met in October, that was after you all had made the request and we hadn't heard from you anymore and we had given you the price of the production that you wanted and you all said you weren't going to pay it," Taylor said to the paper on Friday. "Then the committee approved it and those documentations were destroyed."
Though Taylor says the request was "closed" when the paper refused to pay, the paper had emailed Taylor directly asking if the office planned to reconsider the charge just two weeks before the meeting was held, after another county official said Taylor was reconsidering. Taylor stood by the original estimate.
According to emails obtained by the Times Free Press, an agenda for the commission's meeting that included Beltramo's request to destroy the records was sent out five business days after this exchange.
For months to come, the paper and attorney's office corresponded regularly about the charge in question. The office stuck to its original reasoning, citing the size of the request for the fees, but also began to specify that potentially having to redact the estimated 1,500 pages contributed to labor charges. The state's Office of Open Records Counsel told the paper that the office could not charge for inspection requests despite "supervision and the retrieval, review, and/or redaction of public records."
When asked —after the office sent the letter saying most records were destroyed— how the cost, which was based on page count and labor for printing and redaction, could have remained the same if 98% of records included in the first estimate were destroyed, Taylor said a request for an updated charge "never came up."
"I don't remember it coming up specifically but I just know that we did what the commission said we could do," Taylor said late last week. "When we were told you all weren't going to pay anything, it didn't matter if the charges had changed."
Representatives of the paper were not the only ones left out of the loop on the destruction of records. Multiple officials in the county mayor's office told the Times Free Press they were not made aware of the destruction of records until the paper was, roughly four months later.
Similarly, County Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks said that the commission, which voted to allow the destruction, was unaware of the paper's open request.
"It was never mentioned while we were in there," Fairbanks said of the request. "It wasn't like 'Hey can we destroy these? And oh, by the way, these are being requested by the paper right now.'"
Tennessee Coalition of Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher believes the action points to a broader theme in the county.
"I think it is highly questionable that they went and asked for permission to do this while the local newspaper was asking for the records," Fisher said. "I guess destroying records is just another way to deny access to records."
Moreover, Fisher suspects that the records in question do not meet the state standard for temporary records, which requires that records of value in documenting the functions of government entities be retained.
Fisher said that the office, which oversees public records for the county general government, would be destroying the bulk of records which document its primary function every 30 days, based on the October decision.
"I don't think it would be wise for any government entity to destroy the documents that document the primary function of their office," she added.
The Times Free Press considers the records request ongoing and has asked Taylor to retain any other records potentially responsive to the request.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.