U.S. government fights release of Fitzgerald e-mails about FirstNet
Whether e-mail from Story County (Iowa) Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald—the FirstNet board member whose allegations of FirstNet improprieties sparked a lengthy investigation—are subject to Iowa state public-records requests is being debated before a federal court that so far has blocked the release of the e-mails.
Federal court and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) sources confirm that the injunction blocking the release of the e-mails remains in effect and that the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ)—acting on behalf of FirstNet in the case—must respond by the middle of November to a Story County filing to dismiss the case. After that, a U.S. district court in Iowa is expected to make a ruling on the case.
In August, the Story County board of supervisors voted to release Fitzgerald’s e-mails under the state of Iowa’s public-records laws. But federal attorneys have opposed the release of Fitzgerald’s e-mail about FirstNet—even those sent and received at his Story County e-mail address—noting that Congress eliminated FirstNet from disclosure laws when it established FirstNet.
Federal attorneys have expressed “deep concern of the potentially significant harm that would result if Story County were to publicly release e-mails sent and received by Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald relating to his participation as a sworn federal official in the work of … FirstNet,” according to a letter from Acting Associate Attorney General Elizabeth Taylor to Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes.
This legal battle is the latest episode in the controversial FirstNet tenure of Fitzgerald, who has claimed that public-safety input into the network design was lacking during the first six months of the authority’s existence.
During the April 23 meeting of the FirstNet board, Fitzgerald alleged that board was not being open and transparent in its decision-making processes and that some FirstNet board members have conflicts of interest. An internal special-review committee—supported by a three-person team of attorneys from the U.S. Department of Commerce—found no evidence supporting Fitzgerald’s allegations on the transparency issues. The special review committee has yet to produce a report regarding the conflict-of-interest claims.
According to legal documents, all FirstNet board members were provided with NTIA e-mail accounts, but Fitzgerald and most other board members often communicated using their work or private e-mail accounts. Fitzgerald often used his e-mail account as an employee of Story County when corresponding about FirstNet issues.
On July 29, Politico reporter Tony Romm sought copies of e-mails written by Fitzgerald using his Story County account that related to FirstNet activities that were sent or received between March 1 and June 30, according to the DoJ. On Aug. 13, the Story County board of supervisors voted to release copies of the e-mail to Romm on the morning of Aug. 19.
DoJ attorneys quickly moved to prevent Fitzgerald’s e-mail from being released, and the U.S. district court granted a two-week temporary restraining order. On Sept. 3, the court granted a preliminary injunction to halt the release of the e-mail until both sides submitted filings. Story County filed its motion on Sept. 30, and the DoJ was supposed to respond by Oct. 15, but the court granted the department an additional 30 days to submit its filing because of the federal-government shutdown earlier this month.