Sheriff’s Office Deception Hindered Public Access

Governments slow to release public records often claim they need extra time to locate the information. To counter that excuse, the Minnesota Legislature’s Data Practices Act requires governments to keep records “in such an arrangement and condition as to make them easily accessible for convenient use.”

Instead, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office took a step in the opposite direction: concocting a deceptive digital record to make public access more difficult.

Tony Webster, a public records advocate, stumbled on that effort when he asked the sheriff’s office for emails and other data concerning law enforcement activities. He got more than he bargained for.

“I have cleverly scrambled the letters in the client program acronym to avoid reading this e-mail on the internet,” read a December email from David Freeman, IT Development Supervisor in the sheriff’s office.

The email referred to a mobile fingerprint initiative called Integrated Biometric Identification System, or IBIS. But Freeman changed that acronym in the email to SIIB, hindering anyone searching for information on IBIS.

“They’re mocking the Data Practices Act,” Webster said.

MNCOGI asked Freeman why he tried to obscure the email and if it was part of a broader practice in the sheriff’s office. He did not respond.

Mark Thompson, assistant county administrator for public safety, said the county is aware of the “easily accessible” requirement. “Hennepin County does not have any policies or practices to scramble letters in emails, so that the emails are more difficult to locate. Relevant staff have been informed that it is not proper to do so.”

After Webster asked about the meaning of the Freeman email, an administrator in the sheriff’s office clarified that it referred to IBIS.

MNCOGI wanted to know if Sheriff Richard Stanek was aware of the scrambled email before or after it was written, and whether he understood it to be a violation of the law. Stanek didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. His spokesman, Jon Collins, said, “I will look into this and get back to you.” He didn’t respond further.