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New forensic commission e-mail policy goes in ‘wrong direction,’ lawmaker says

New forensic commission e-mail policy goes in ‘wrong direction,’ lawmaker says

AUSTIN — Members of a state commission examining the case of Cameron Todd Willingham have been asked to delete e-mail correspondence, a policy that came under attack Friday from a state senator who helped create the 4-year-old agency.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has drawn national attention over an inquiry to determine whether a flawed arson investigation led to Willingham’s execution in 2004. John Bradley, who took over as chairman of the revamped commission Sept. 30, told state senators this month that the commission must adopt new rules before proceeding with the inquiry.

Bradley, district attorney for Williamson County, has also sought to control the release of information about commission activities. In an Oct. 30 e-mail obtained by the Star-Telegram, staff coordinator Leigh Tomlin asked commission members, “as a reminder of our e-mail retention policy, please delete all commission correspondence.

“If you feel there is something that needs to be saved, forward it to my office.”

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who sponsored legislation that created the commission in 2005, expressed disapproval with the policy, saying “it’s going in the wrong direction.”

“Surely deleting all e-mail correspondence is a nice way of saying, ‘destroy all correspondence,’ ” he said. “It’s the same thing.”

Hinojosa also said that because commission members are appointed independently of the chairman, they should be able to “keep and save whatever e-mail they want to keep.”

Seeking to simplify

Bradley said the policy “simply seeks to make sure that all relevant information is saved at a single location.”

“As you might imagine,” Bradley wrote in an e-mail, “with digital information being sent, forwarded and replied to at the touch of button, an agency can find itself with duplicates of the information in numerous places.

“That makes it difficult for a public information officer to respond to requests for information and be confident about complying with all the legal requirements connected to that responsibility.”

The Oct. 30 e-mail from Tomlin, which had the subject line “TFSC Willingham,” also requested that commission members “forward any and all communications regarding Dr. Beyler or the Willingham matter to my office, including all emails and written correspondence.”

Tomlin’s e-mail was written in response to a public information request with “a short deadline,” she told members.

Craig Beyler is a Baltimore fire expert hired by the nine-member commission to examine the arson investigation that resulted in Willingham’s conviction for setting a house fire that killed his three daughters. Beyler’s report concluded that the investigation was based on outmoded techniques and did not sustain a finding of arson.

In another e-mail, Tomlin, who could not be reached Friday, told commission members: “Please also keep in mind that any communications regarding the Commission’s activities should be delivered through the Commission chair, Mr. Bradley.”

Bradley said the policies are aimed at creating “some centralized process for dealing with media inquiries. One of the duties of any head of an agency is to make sure there are prompt, consistent replies to media inquiries.”

Confidentiality concerns

During a Nov. 10 appearance before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, three senators raised concerns about Bradley’s suggestions to make some of the commission’s work confidential to protect whistle-blowers and minimize disruptions from outside groups.

Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said through a spokesman Friday that he may look into Bradley’s e-mail policies but is taking a “wait and see” attitude.

But the head of a nonprofit organization that monitors open meetings and public information laws said the commission’s directives “sound suspect.”

“If you have a policy to routinely destroy information, that doesn’t sound transparent to me,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “It just strikes me as being very unusual, especially in light of all the controversy surrounding that agency recently.”

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