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Fitzgerald-FirstNet saga generates many questions, few answers (Part 2)

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  • Fitzgerald-FirstNet saga generates many questions, few answers (Part 2)
  • Litmus test

Regardless of how the battle over the public release of FirstNet-related e-mails sent and received by board member Paul Fitzgerald plays out, this episode promises to be a significant litmus test for the fledgling organization, on several levels.

From the moment that FirstNet board member Paul Fitzgerald alleged transparency and ethics improprieties within the fledging organization during its April 23 meeting, most observers predicted that the allegations would have a significant impact. Many predicted that FirstNet would change its business practices or that Fitzgerald would not be on the FirstNet board much longer.

Six months later, Fitzgerald—the sheriff of Story County, Iowa—remains on the FirstNet board and an internal special review committee found that his openness and transparency complaints were without merit. The primary outwardly visible changes in FirstNet’s practices concern the organization’s ability to hire staff members, led by General Manager Bill D’Agostino, which has allowed most board members to relinquish any responsibilities for day-to-day operations.

Earlier this week, we addressed the impact that the allegations—and subsequent legal proceedings surrounding FirstNet-related e-mails sent by Fitzgerald from his Story County e-mail address—have had on Fitzgerald. Today, we’ll examine some of the impacts that these events have had on FirstNet.

One practice that has changed within FirstNet is that board members supposedly have been using accounts issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)—the government entity that oversees FirstNet—exclusively since mid-June. Prior to that time, board members used personal or work e-mail addresses for FirstNet business, in part because accessing the NTIA e-mail accounts require additional login procedures, according to a legal declaration from FirstNet Secretary Uzoma Onyeije.

Now, it might be natural to think that this was a logical reaction to Politico reporter Tony Romm’s request to obtain Fitzgerald’s FirstNet-related e-mails that were sent and received via his Story County account, but the dates cited in the legal proceeding would suggest otherwise. FirstNet board members were told of the U.S. Department of Commerce policy prohibiting use of outside e-mail addresses for department business several weeks before Romm filed his open-records request with Story County.

After Romm filed his open-records request for the Fitzgerald e-mails, federal attorneys acted quickly to block their release. This was done with the cooperation of Fitzgerald, who supplied copies of the e-mails against the directive of the Story County board of supervisors, which controls the budget for Fitzgerald’s office.

In his legal declaration, Fitzgerald has stated that information in the FirstNet-related e-mails was sent to him on the condition of confidentiality and that he signed non-disclosure agreements to view information in at least two instances.

“From my conversations and exchanges with these individuals and consultants, I know they would not share or provide their information, thoughts, opinions and insights with me regarding FirstNet, if they understood these communications would be made public,” Fitzgerald stated.

Fitzgerald took a similar stance regarding communications with other board members, a sentiment echoed by Onyeije.

“To the extent that communications at issue here are disclosed publicly, the disclosure will have a chilling effect on frank and open communications among the board members, between the board members and their staff, between the board members and other federal staff, and between the board members and the board’s public-safety constituents,” Onyeije stated in his legal declaration.

The episode raises a number of questions regarding FirstNet, including the following:

  • Did this e-mail saga impact the release of the special review committee’s findings into Fitzgerald’s allegations about openness and transparency? Remember, the committee’s findings were to be released on Sept. 5 but were delayed twice before being released in late September. Meanwhile, the special review committee has yet to release any recommendations, although Fitzgerald has made comments that indicate that he has seen or been told about them.
  • Who in the federal government made the decision to pursue court action blocking the release of the e-mails? Was it FirstNet, NTIA or the U.S. Department of Commerce? Are they all working together in this effort?
  • Fitzgerald has provided the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) with the e-mails, but has the DOC shared them with FirstNet? If not, was the decision to have the DOC inspector general conduct the portion of the investigation of Fitzgerald’s allegations related to ethics and procurement really the decision of FirstNet Chairman Sam Ginn? Or did DOC officials make the decision to take over the investigation after seeing the Fitzgerald e-mails and maybe conducting some follow-up interviews?

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Nov 7, 2013

Kill this frankenstein now - nothing good will come of it.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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