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Media can see e-mail, cell phone records of former city employee

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Media can see e-mail, cell phone records of former city employee

  • An appeals court ordered disclosure of e-mail and cell phone records of a mayoral press secretary who had ties to the San Diego Padres, saying the public’s interest in what the records may show about a decision to procure ballpark bonds trumps her privacy interests.

July 16, 2003 — A California appellate court in San Diego ordered disclosure of e-mail and phone records of a former San Diego city employee whose hiring and subsequent departure were challenged by a local newspaper. The July 2 ruling partially overturns a lower court’s refusal to grant access to several types of documents.

In 2002, the San Diego Reader requested records pertaining to Elena Cristiano, who was hired in 2000 as the mayor’s press secretary. The Reader was interested in looking into the circumstances under which she left in the spring of 2002.

According to the Reader, Cristiano had ties to San Diego Padres executive Charles Steinberg and “the end of [her] tenure at city hall came just as the Padres and the city were able to reach a final legal agreement to sell the bonds needed to build a new ballpark.”

The city denied the Reader access to Cristiano’s benefits claims and all correspondence, including e-mail. The city provided the newspaper with Cristiano’s telephone and cell phone records, but redacted information about the parties calling or receiving calls.

The newspaper contested the city’s actions in court, but the trial court sided with the city. On appeal, the court granted disclosure of e-mails and the unredacted cell phone records, but it upheld the rest of the low court’s decision.

A three-justice panel of the appeals court held that public interest in the cell phone and e-mail records outweighs privacy interests of those who communicated with Cristiano.

“Here, the governmental function the information sought to illuminate was a sharply focused one: what functions were being performed at government expense by a person who allegedly had little or no experience and training for the position for which she was being paid,” Justice Alex McDonald wrote on behalf of the court.

Although the Reader did not receive all of the information it requested, the outcome is a positive one, said David Niddrie, its appellate counsel.

“We were being stonewalled by the city, so really getting anything was helpful,” he said.

The Reader is filing a petition for rehearing that seeks clarification on some issues in the case, including the city’s classification of some of the correspondence and the scope of the Reader’s requests.

The city has no plans to appeal the decision, said Jim Chapin, deputy city attorney, who said that the city only fought the disclosure of benefit claims in this case and, for the additional documents, simply had asked the Reader to narrow the scope of its requests.

The appeals court said state law exempts the information in the benefits claims from disclosure.

(Holman v. Superior Court; Media counsel: David Niddrie, Niddrie & Hegemier, San Diego) EH


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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