Employee sues over deleted emails

Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes District 1 swears into office September of 2017.

A Sandoval County employee is suing the county over a failed completion of an Inspection of Public Records Act request pertaining to emails from outgoing Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes.

Court documents indicate that Tina Tawater, Sandoval County assistant director of human resources, filed an IPRA request on Sept. 18, asking for: “All emails from or to Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes’ personal email account with key words: Mark Hatzenbuhler-leadership, dereliction of duties, tyrant resignation, Mike Springfield-leadership, dereliction of duties, tyrant resignation.”

The document says Tawater sought these email records to prove and disprove allegations asserted by Holden-Rhodes relating to her performance as a county employee.

On Sept. 25, county spokeswoman Melissa Perez sent an email to Tawater, stating that the county searched for responsive records but could not locate any pertaining to her IPRA request.

Before Perez’s email to Tawater, court records indicate, Perez asked Holden-Rhodes for his assistance on the request.

Holden-Rhodes replied: “M. Cut to the chase please! Who is requesting this information/IPRA?”

Perez notified him that Tawater was asking for the information.

On Sept. 23, Holden-Rhodes responded to Perez’s request by stating he deleted his county emails on a weekly basis due to “frivolous” IPRA requests, according to documents.

Court records indicate that one email found per Tawater’s request stated that Holden-Rhodes sought to have the director of public works removed for failure of leadership and dereliction of duties. Court records also say the email referred to Tawater as “Tina the Tyrant” and alleged that there is a “visceral” fear of retaliation among the county’s public works employees.

Tawater’s attorney Thomas Grover said the county and Holden-Rhodes withheld at least one email relevant to Tawater’s IPRA request and he believes Holden-Rhodes may have withheld others.

“He admitted outright to deleting his emails, which is a very cavalier way of governing,” Grover said. “There is no basis for him to be doing this. Whether it was a county email or personal, it doesn’t matter, it is still admissible in this case.”

He pointed to another case he worked on where a police officer used his personal phone during an arrest, which was deemed relevant to the court case.

“When you enter the public arena, your personal cell phone and emails are fair game,” Grover said.

According to court records, Tawater’s original IPRA request still remains incomplete and denied.

Perez said in an email that she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit. She also said the county doesn’t have a commission-specific email policy but has an “Email Acceptable Use” policy.

“That policy is public record and provided to all employees in our new employee orientation and made available to all employees on our intranet for staff,” Perez said.

The policy forbids employees from keeping emails for longer than 180 days unless the user considers them critical and marks them for archiving. Archiving lasts three years unless a director or elected official approves keeping an email longer.

The policy requires that emails that are part of another document or group of documents should be saved with those documents for the same period.

However, Perez said the county wasn’t enforcing those rules because of problems with the state regarding the issue.

County policy prohibits unauthorized use of personal email accounts for county business. The Observer doesn’t know if Holden-Rhodes was authorized to use his personal account for county business.

Holden-Rhodes declined to comment on the matter.