A few weeks ago a county hall insider mentioned to me that he had heard about an interesting memo written by Tom David, executive assistant county manager. David is new to Miami-Dade government, brought in by County Manager Steve Shiver seven months ago to be his right-hand man. Since his arrival David has developed a reputation for being a nasty and abusive fellow. While Shiver pretends to be the friend of county employees, David plays the role of thug, threatening and intimidating employees who don't jump at his every command. As a result David has no shortage of enemies.
One of those who holds David in low esteem called to tell me about the e-mail message, which was written to Donald Allen, deputy director of employee relations. My source hadn't actually seen the e-mail; he only heard about it. He said David, in typically belligerent fashion, had threatened to fire Allen or abolish the employee-relations department if his request to add staff to the county manager's office wasn't carried out immediately.
Naturally that sounded interesting to me. So in mid-September I filed a public-records request asking for all e-mail messages between Tom David and Don Allen. Even if the e-mail did exist, I knew it wasn't a major story, so I put it out of my mind.
In requesting the e-mail, I was doing something reporters call "gathering string," collecting bits of information about an individual over time, with the hope of eventually tying them all together. I viewed this e-mail as one of those pieces I was gathering for a larger story I'd someday write about Tom David and his overbearing nature. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that David would hand me not just a piece of string but enough rope to hang him.
Several days after making my request, I received a stack of printed e-mails that went back and forth between David and Allen. I arranged them in chronological order and began to read. Soon I realized there was a gap in the series. It was obvious one e-mail was missing. Based on the tone of the messages before and after this gap, it appeared the missing e-mail was the one in which David had threatened Allen.
I called Juan Mendieta, acting director of the communications department, and told him one e-mail was missing. He promised to go to Tom David, retrieve the missing message, and fax it to me as soon as possible.
A few days later, Mendieta informed me that David no longer had the e-mail. He had destroyed it. David told Mendieta he had determined that Florida's public-records law didn't apply to that particular e-mail and that it was within his discretion to get rid of it.
Before destroying the document, did David check with the county attorney's office to see if his interpretation of the law was accurate? Nope. In fact the county attorney's office is dumbfounded by David's action. In subsequent conversations Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg told David the e-mail was a public record and he was wrong to destroy it. David refused to discuss the matter with me, but I'm told from those around him that he is boasting about having destroyed it. He tells anyone who will listen that he's right and all the attorneys are wrong.
Gee, I wonder where people get the idea that David is arrogant?
I'm told county officials tried to reconstruct the e-mail through a backup computer system, but the Information Technology Division (ITD) was unable to recover it. If I were a suspicious individual, I might point out that ITD reports directly to Tom David and that he oversees its entire operation. But why further impugn the man's integrity when he does such a good job of that on his own?
A copy of the e-mail message finally surfaced. At the time it was sent in early September, it had been printed and passed around, and someone saved a copy. Last week that copy finally made its way to me. In the e-mail David chided Allen, telling him "you need to get control" of employee relations. "I'm frustrated that a simple matter like adding clerks to the Agenda office is such a major production," he wrote on September 6. "Yours is a SERVICE department." He went on to say that if Allen was unable to be more helpful, "I need to evaluate the need for the department."
The message wasn't as egregious as I had originally heard, which is why David's efforts to destroy it seem so stupid. If he'd just sent it to me when I first requested it, I would have read it, filed it, and probably never thought about it again. Instead I have a new issue at hand: Did Tom David violate state law by knowingly destroying a public document? Chapter 119 of Florida statutes unambiguously states that willful destruction of public records is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by both a fine and a jail term.
David has told people he believes he was able to destroy the e-mail by defining it as a "transitory message" under a little-used administrative rule adopted by the Florida Department of State. There's only one problem with that: The county's own attorneys don't agree with him. I sent them a copy of David's e-mail last week, and they researched the definition of "transitory message" and concluded that David was wrong. "In my opinion this is not a transitory message," says Greenberg, "and if Tom David had asked us before destroying it, we would have told him so." That raises more questions: What other public records has Tom David illegally destroyed? And is David's disregard for the law shared by Steve Shiver and other members of the county manager's office?
Clearly the public-corruption unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office needs to begin an investigation, as does the county's ethics commission. Both agencies should pursue the matter aggressively. If criminal charges are possible, the State Attorney's Office should bring them as soon as possible. Perhaps then David will realize the seriousness of his offense. The public-records law is one of Florida's most important statutes and is critical for maintaining some semblance of integrity and honesty in government. But it only has meaning if it is vigorously defended.
Recently this paper published a letter from Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle in which she lamented the dearth of laws covering the conduct of public officials. Well, Tom David is a public official who clearly violated a law already on the books. Let's see how Rundle handles it.
If David didn't feel like consulting attorneys beforehand, he might want to begin consulting with them now. But since he didn't bother seeking an opinion from the County Attorney's Office before destroying public records, he's on his own now in hiring legal defense. Taxpayer money must not be spent defending a man who shows such contempt for the public's right to know how its government operates.
David's actions are outrageous for another reason. Over the past six weeks Mayor Alex Penelas has tried to convey to the public that county government is working hard to counter the economic devastation that followed the September 11 attacks. He declared a state of emergency and granted the county manager unprecedented power to award contracts with the aim of jump-starting the local economy. The mayor also is expected to ask the public to support a billion dollars' worth of new construction projects.
Penelas has assured the public that the county manager and his staff can be trusted with these responsibilities and that their actions will be transparent and open to public review. But why should anyone have confidence in the mayor's words when Tom David's actions show that the manager's office in fact is not to be trusted? How can Penelas argue that the manager's decisions will be transparent when David thumbs his nose at both the spirit and the letter of the public-records law?
Although Tom David might think this is a big joke, Penelas knows better. But the mayor has wedded himself to Shiver and David, so when they screw up, Penelas is the one who forfeits credibility.
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