Electronic records of ousted Texas speaker of the House destroyed

Open government advocates are charging that when state officials wiped out computer files of the ousted three-term speaker of the House, they may have destroyed state records that belong to the taxpaying public. –DB

First Amendment Center
Feb. 5, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Before Texas lawmakers voted their three-term speaker of the House out of his powerful job, state officials wiped his computers clean and deleted scores of electronic files, raising concerns that important public records may have been destroyed.

Files on one shared computer network drive were saved, but unless Rep. Tom Craddick specifically requested them, computer hard drives and electronic records associated with individual employees were deleted, officials said.

Deleting computer files from hard drives is standard procedure, said Craddick’s chief of staff, Kate Huddleston. Paper files were retained and sent into storage, she said.

It’s not clear exactly what electronic files were deleted, setting off alarms among government watchdogs.

Fred Lewis, an independent government watchdog, called the deletions “outrageous.”

“If it’s on a state computer, it’s a state record. They’re not his records. They belong to the people of Texas,” Lewis said. “I think there should be an investigation on whether or not he illegally destroyed state records.”

Craddick left the speaker’s office on Jan. 13, returning to the state House as a rank-and-file member without a vast staff and without the sweeping power the presiding officer wields.

The computers were removed from the speaker’s office to be wiped clean at 5 p.m. Jan. 12, said Anne Billingsley, spokeswoman for the Texas Legislative Council. Craddick’s successor, Republican Rep. Joe Straus, was sworn in as speaker at noon the following day.

“Everything that Speaker Craddick had on his computers as far as data and records, he was allowed to take with him into his (state representative’s) office,” Billingsley said. “As far as the computers go, they took all the computers for the speaker’s office, and they got wiped.”

The computers were recycled and Straus got his own computer systems that did not have the old files on them, Billingsley said.

A call placed by the Associated Press to Straus’ office was not returned in time for this story.

First Amendment attorney Joe Larsen, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said he was concerned important data may never be retrieved. Unless officials specifically culled through the files to ensure government records were retained, “then the odds that public information was destroyed are very high,” he said.

Copyright Associated Press 2009