AG’s office to rule on request for district attorney emails

By Kristen Mosbrucker
The Monitor
Originally published Aug. 7, 2015

EDINBURG — The Texas Attorney General’s office is set to decide whether or not Hidalgo County’s district attorney must release about 1,000 emails sent to and from Ricardo Rodriguez, the district attorney since Jan. 1.

The Monitor filed a public information request May 26 under the Texas Public Information Act, that allows public access to information held by governmental agencies.

The original request sought an electronic copy of all documentation related to communication including emails, text messages and phone calls made or received by Rodriguez and several of his staff members.

The district attorney’s office responded with a request for clarification, and The Monitor offered several searchable keywords within that cache of emails. The Monitor was told that the emails were not able to be searched for keywords, and that some information may be redacted due to pending investigations.

The county agency sent an email in July suggesting the keywords were interpreted not as a narrowed request, but more information.

Instead the office asked for further guidance about what subject The Monitor was looking for. Agencies are not permitted to ask why, but may request clarification to narrow the request. Information may also be redacted from documentation to protect privacy for social security numbers and home addresses. Each time a public information request is amended, the office has an extension on its 10-day response window.

Despite repeated requests for the Hidalgo County agency to submit a letter seeking opinion from the attorney general, the DA’s office didn’t seek a decision until early August.

“It seems like an unusually long time period to get clarification,” said Joe Larsen, a Houston-based attorney who sits on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“Given that it was a response to a request for clarification their answer that it was in addition to what you were asking for earlier does not sound credible,” Larsen said.

Josephine Ramirez, assistant criminal district attorney for Hidalgo County penned 11 pages to the Texas Attorney General detailing why the state should not force the county to release the emails.

“Some communications would permit private citizens to interfere with law enforcement,” wrote Ramirez in an Aug. 4 letter. She described the request as overbroad, and questioned whether the High Intensity Drug Trafficking task force servers would be accessible to the county.

“Due to the dangerous and violent nature of the international drug cartels, and HIDTA’s main objective being to thwart the criminal activity of these organizations, the release of personal and operational correspondence would not only interfere with the investigation and law enforcement but also threaten officer safety,” Ramirez continued.

Attorney-client privilege protection was another argument against the release of emails.

“Some of the communication responsive to the request contains legal opinions and/or legal recommendations given by the DA’s office to various County offices, departments and employees regarding pending internal matters,” she wrote.

Ramirez also argued that while the original request did not seek personal communications, that it was overbroad and unclear whether it was only for county business interactions.

“These communications involve confidential information that are not intended for third persons, and furthered the rendition of professional legal services as attorney for the County,” she continued.

The district attorney’s office declined further comment, pending the state’s decision.

“The District Attorney’s Office is seeking a decision from the Texas Attorney General in connection with your information request for DA and HIDTA communications as allowed under the Public Information Act (Chapter 552, Texas Government Code) and in keeping with our customary practice,” wrote Ramirez on Thursday afternoon.

No documentation related to this request has been released to date, and there is no timetable as to when the attorney general’s office will make a decision.