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Bell County puts $50,000 price on PIA request for Temple mayor pro tem’s emails

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Is $50,000 a reasonable price to learn what prompted Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales to tell one of her employees “delete, delete, delete” when emails and other computer files on equipment belonging to Bell County, Morales’ employer at the time, were sought in a Public Information Act request? That’s the price quoted in response to a new request to access more of those emails.

A Feb. 12, 2013, PIA request asked for copies of emails from Judy Morales’ county email address Feb. 1, 2011 through Nov. 30, 2013. In response, Bell County Assistant County Attorney Darrell Guess first responded as follows:

As to the Judy Morales emails. There are over 80,000 emails. The cost to produce this request has been estimated by Mr. Chandler in technology services. It will be an overwhelming undertaking and at great cost. It is estimated in excess of $56,000.00 and we are not able to give you a time frame due to the technical difficulties. The cost is so high due to the fact each email must be reviewed and redacted as to any personal, confidential, HIPPA protected, and other excluded identifiers that we are required under the PIA to protect of the individual clients. The man power required is extensive.

He later revised that figure and offered this breakdown of the labor costs:

Judy Morales email cost (Feb 1, 2011 to Nov 30, 2013)

Charge Schedule 70.10

(1) Standard Paper $0.10 cent per page x 80118 = $8011.80
(3) Labor Charge
(a) Programming (to extract emails) – $28.50 per hour = 8 hours time to extract 80118 emails = $228
(b) Locating, compiling and reproducing (need to review each email for redaction) – $15.00 per hour = 1.75
minutes per email x 80118 / 60 minutes/hour = 2336.77 hours x $15 = $35051.62
(4) Overhead charge = 20% of labor = $35279.62 x .20 = $7055.92
(7) Computer resources
(B) Client Server – $2.20 per hour x 8 hours = $17.60
(D) PC or LAN – $1.00 per hour x 8 hours = $8.00
(9) Postage = Actual Cost
Total Cost = $50,372.95 plus postage

Morales has had a busy few months even outside her email generation.

Though elected to the Temple City Council in May 2011, it wasn’t until September 2013 that Morales and other city officials reportedly learned of her ineligibility to run for that office – ineligibility based on a “Conflict of Interest” clause in Temple’s 91-year-old city charter.

Early November brought an announcement of Morales’ Oct. 1 retirement from her 40+ year Director of Social Services position at the HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Center, an outreach department of Bell County that helps connect area residents with a wide range of community-based often taxpayer-funded services and programs. At that time it was additionally confirmed by Bell County Judge Jon Burrows that Morales would serve as a consultant for the HELP Center and receive compensation comparable to her former salary.

Morales’ eligibility for office wasn’t the only source of scrutiny during this time as the Temple Daily Telegram had also filed a Public Information Act (PIA) request seeking to learn if Morales violated county employee policies and/or state election laws by utilizing county employees and resources during her 2011 city council campaign.

In early November, the Telegram also requested emails from November 2010 to May 31, 2011. Mari Paul, a Bell County employee who ultimately filed a complaint over Morales’ instruction to delete potentially compromising computer files, says Morales contacted her the evening of Thursday, Nov. 7, reporting that night’s “chatter” around the city council meeting of the Telegram looking into ‘misappropriation of funds’ during her 2011 election. Morales allegedly instructed Paul with regard to the reporter to “take a message” and further directed “do not answer any of his questions.”

Paul described how the next day Morales used her cell phone to call Paul asking for “my help in explaining to her how to transfer documents from her desktop to an external hard-drive,” a process Paul believed was happening as the two remained on the line.

On Saturday, Nov. 9, a significant portion of a conversation identified as between Morales and Paul was initially captured on video. It is presented here in audio form to avoid phone number displays.

MoralesCall131109

Morales then again called Paul on Monday, Nov. 11, the county-observed Veterans Day holiday, leaving this message.

MoralesVMail131111

While the recorded conversation suggests Morales’ desire to copy and then destroy campaign-related files at that time on she and Paul’s county (i.e., taxpayer-funded) computers, this statement implies concerns over other non-county information coming to light.

She tells Paul “Friday evening the judge called me. He said that this guy—he wanted me to be aware they called and asked for a public information request, which means they can go in our emails and..and..search, you know. But, but you know, I don’t want them to search everything because they’re going to know about all this other stuff, from LULAC and everything else. Can you imagine the heyday they’re going to have on the news if these…they get low and dirty.”

“The judge” to whom Morales refers is presumably Burrows.

Morales’ characterizing a request for information to which the public is entitled as “low and dirty” is interesting both from the standpoint of her being a government employee and an elected official.

As a government employee does she truly not understand that government resources are provided by taxpayers and then marshalled for uses that at least theoretically benefit those taxpayers – not one’s self-interest? That misuse or diversion of public resources for outside activities is a breach of public trust? That failure to grasp this concept as well as communicate and enforce it with employees is a dereliction of duty? And that government employees’ resistance to transparency and openness should be a warning to anyone who values accountability in government?

As an elected official, again, does she bring this self-interested mindset to her stewardship of public funds? Hopefully it’s known that officials are there to serve public interests, not their own. And that goes for decisions whether it’s policies, procedures or programs. Public officials should also understand what public documents are and that destroying them is against the law. If you presume to make laws for others, shouldn’t you know and follow those already in existence?

And the rule of law? Does that mean anything to anyone anymore? While some residents have expressed concern over Morales’ impropriety, others maintain she’s done so much for the community that it shouldn’t matter.

It was ironic to see on this season’s Republican primary ballot a “No Lawmaker Exceptions” proposition asking if “All elected officials and their staff should be subject to the same laws, rules, regulations, and ordinances as their constituents.” In theory most people will probably answer affirmatively, but Morales has certainly helped illustrate the practical reality of that notion.

With all that said, hard to imagine some of those 80,000+ emails wouldn’t be quite an interesting read.

Based on what’s known, Morales appears to have at the least violated Bell County employee policies as well as public trust by using county resources in manners outside their intended purpose.

She also seems to have at least intended to destroy public records. If in fact she did, that’s a crime that, depending on the specific allegations, can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony.

In Bell County wants $50,000 for email copies, Wednesday’s Temple Daily Telegram gave this update on the investigation into Morales’ activities:

The Bell County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation to determine if Morales broke any criminal laws is complete, Lt. Donnie Adams said. The results of the investigation have been turned over to Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols, who will decide whether or not Morales will be prosecuted, Adams said.

“The county attorney’s office is in the process of reviewing the evidence and applicable statutes involved in the Judy Morales investigation,” Nichols wrote in a Friday email to the Telegram. “This review is ongoing. It is not uncommon that an initial report or investigation raises additional questions that must be answered before a final decision is made. When that decision is reached, it will be made public.”

This statement was additionally provided to the Telegram:

“The excessive amount is clearly an impractical option. A Temple Daily Telegram request for similar information prompted some of the controversy that now surrounds Morales,” Anderson said Tuesday.

Anderson questioned the county’s pricing policies.

“Was the paper offered comparable pricing for its requested information? What expenses were involved for the county to fulfill that request? Are all requestors treated equally under the law? One has to wonder,” Anderson said.

Anderson admitted Tuesday the amount of information she requested is extensive.

“I don’t deny the scope of the task, but with large amounts of information, requestors are often offered options such as an on-site review prior to duplication and/or digital versions instead of hard copies. No such alternatives were presented,” she said.

And others concur with regard to the high price. Catherine Robb, a Freedom of Information attorney with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the Telegram:

That’s a pretty hefty charge for something like that. It seems pretty steep and not within most budgets. It’s certainly not just pocket change considering what you get at the end of the day. The income of most Texans wouldn’t support paying a price like that.

“That sounds like an extremely high bill,” Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said. “I have to wonder if the time and labor are possibly being overstated by the county.”

Meanwhile, though eyebrows are raised, heads shaken or scratched, life moves on.

A teary-eyed Morales returned to the Temple City Council after a nearly three-month leave of absence. She’s filed for re-election as also have Mayor Danny Dunn and Councilman Perry Cloud. If no challengers come forward by Friday’s 5 p.m. filing deadline, all three can look to easy re-election with Morales’ conduct a less likely campaign issue than contested races would have brought.

All that’s left is a determination by the county attorney’s office regarding charges. The 2013 prosecution of C.J. Grisham for an interfering with the duties of a peace officer Class B misdemeanor charge showed that, when motivated, Bell County has no issue with aggressively pursuing even low-level charges. Ongoing issues related to the Lorenzo Martinez case remind that seemingly protectionist options exist with legal gamesmanship always providing an out should motivation be directed toward such alternatives.

Upon hearing of the $50,000 charge, Paul reminded how prior to leaving employment with the county, she was informed by Human Resources Director Steve Cook of a PIA request seeking her emails for the larger part of 2013. The charge assessed on that, she suggested, might be interesting to obtain. She’s right.

Anyone having gone through a court case or other legal battle knows that justice often comes with a high price. It would appear now the same can be said of public information.

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