OLYMPIA – When a neighborhood group in 2006 demanded records about alleged nepotism in Spokane County, county officials said they checked employees’ current computers. But they didn’t check the hard drives of computers that had recently been switched out.
They said a document didn’t exist when it did, on an old hard drive.
So did they violate the state Public Records Act? And, if so, how much of a penalty should they pay?
Those are some of the questions the state Supreme Court is wrestling with after arguments Thursday from attorneys for the county and the Neighborhood Alliance, which was seeking evidence that former County Commissioner Phil Harris’ son was being hired for a job before other applicants could apply.
Breean Beggs of the alliance said it’s a clear violation because the county employee filling the public records request knew the record existed and knew her computer had been replaced a few months earlier.
“She could have picked up the phone and asked them to check her hard drive,” Beggs said.
By the time the hard drive was located and searched, it had been wiped clean and put back into use in a different department.
But Patrick Riskin, a private attorney handling the case for the county, said workers searched the computers they had but not hard drives that had been picked up by computer services. “You have to wonder if searching in the land of recycled hard drives is reasonable … we would submit it is not.”
The justices seemed to struggle with what is reasonable in the world of records being kept on computers, and computers being constantly upgraded or replaced.
“It’s reasonable to search any system where the information may be available,” Justice Debra Stephens said. “The question is whether the (old hard drive) was part of the system.”
And if the county is liable for penalties, should they keep piling up at as much as $100 a day until the case is settled? No, Riskin argued, the clock should stop running on any penalties in August 2006, when the hard drive was wiped clean. Otherwise it penalizes the county for appealing the case.
But that could be up to a trial judge, Justice Jim Johnson said. “Couldn’t you go back and argue that the penalties are de minimus, and don’t meet the high standard” for the maximum fine?