February 02, 2008
The Sheriff's emails

You may recall the recent story about Sheriff Tommy Thomas' abrupt change in email retention policy, which came about during the recent unpleasantness for DA Chuck Rosenthal. Thomas' email admin Willie Mata wrote a letter to the editor disputing some of the assertions made in that story.

In response to Rick Casey's column on Jan. 27, "Dems: Quit gloating over the scandals," I must take issue with his comment: "The sheriff overnight erases thousands of e-mails on all his department's computers without warning." In actuality, I moved 5 1/2 months worth of e-mail from nearly 4,000 mailboxes onto archive tape. At no time were e-mails erased from computers as Casey asserts, and all of these e-mail messages, attachments included, are recoverable. It must also be noted that no investigative information has been lost, as suggested by some deputies, and the deputies who have made such suggestions are not assigned to investigative functions.

Casey was correct in his statement that the users were given no warning. Let me explain why. As our public information officer, Capt. John Martin, has stated to the media on numerous occasions, we have a critical storage problem on our servers. If I had taken the time to warn our users, they would have off-loaded their mail from the mail servers to our file servers. As both mail and file operations are served by the same storage system, there was insufficient storage to allow this. The storage system, placed into operation in March 2006, was sized to serve us for approximately two years before needing an expansion.

Following my attendance at a training seminar in August 2007, I had several meetings with our business manager regarding an expansion of our storage. In a budget forecast document for technology spending for fiscal year 2008, submitted on Oct. 31, 2007, I requested approximately $100,000 to expand and enhance our storage system. In the document, I predicted that we would run out of storage before the summer of 2008. Unfortunately, we have run out much quicker than I anticipated.

Our new e-mail retention policy went into effect on Jan. 9. To date, we have restored enough space to recover archived mail to the mail server; however, we are not out of the woods on the file system. We cannot recover mail that we anticipate will end up on the file servers until we have the added capacity. Each day that we are under the temporary restraining order placed upon us on Jan. 18, we continue to eat away at our storage because we are not allowed to delete mail, a normal process. As technical professionals, my staff and I will continue to take whatever measures necessary to keep our systems running without violating the order. Guidance from our county attorney's office on retention policies will help prevent this from happening again.

As Sheriff Tommy Thomas stated in earlier remarks to a reporter, "if our policy is found to be illegal, we will change it." Implementing a 14-day retention policy on e-mail and revising our internal procedures to change the manner in which our employees use this valuable tool was the best option we had at the time to regain needed storage.

These facts and the timing of the memo have been publicly discussed at length. The removal of mail from our mailboxes did not start until Jan. 12, after completely satisfying an open records request from KTRK (Channel 13), and certainly not without the knowledge and confidence that those messages were backed up. The command staff made a decision, and it was up to me to make it so. As much as Casey and his colleagues would like to believe otherwise, our storage issue existed long before and is unrelated to the problems at the Harris County district attorney's office.

network administrator, Harris County sheriff's office

Good to hear. But that there appears to have been some kind of breakdown in communications in here, because the original Chron story said:

When he turned on his computer at the Harris County Jail this week, Sgt. Richard Newby was greeted with a flashing message announcing that all e-mail automatically would be deleted after 14 days.

Items such as personnel rosters, employee work schedules and tasks from his commanders had been wiped clean from his e-mail account.

"It was a little unsettling. We had no warning," Newby said this week. "I was looking for stuff, and it was gone."

If Sgt. Newby is typical, then the users didn't understand what was happening. And I suspect he was typical, because as Mark Bennett shows, the memo and accompanying documentation (both PDFs) that Sgt. Newby and his coworkers would have received makes no mention of moving emails to archive tape, where presumably it can be retrieved as needed. It baldly says "Please consider this memorandum as authorization for the immediate deletion of all departmental email that is, as of the date of this memorandum, older than 14 days". There may have been some confusion here about what the Sheriff's office was doing, but I don't think it was Rick Casey who was the cause of it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 02, 2008 to Local politics

It is unusual for an administrator to speak on behalf of the elected department head and still retain employment unless the elected department head authorized it.

Willie Mata is not on the ballot. Tommy Thomas is.

What a waste of newsprint.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on February 2, 2008 9:53 PM

I called the Sheriff's dep. to ask about their policy. Spokesperson, Captain North, stated that emails would be deleted after 2 weeks, and stored on tape for 2 weeks more before the archived tapes were RECYCLED for use again. That means that the data would be erased after a month. Maybe Willie Mata can explain but I also don't understand why the Sheriff's department has it's own email server when the Harris county runs it's own email. It's a duplication of effort. The real trouble is that the sheriff's policy violates state administrative code and the county has yet to acknowledge it as they are still "reviewing" their data retention policy.

Posted by: haikunick on February 4, 2008 2:33 PM
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