EVERETT — A man is demanding the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office provide him with every record in its possession, going back 238 years.
But he doesn’t want to give his name — indeed, he’s threatening to haul into court anyone who even attempts to make it public.
Snohomish County officials say the request makes little sense except as an attempt to harass government officials, but insist they have no option except to begin pulling together materials the man is seeking — regardless of how complicated or disruptive.
In the meantime, sheriff’s office employees have been told to hang on to every email, every recording, every Post-It note.
“We are preparing responses. It is a huge undertaking,” said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor.
Even one of the state’s biggest advocates for lawful access to public records believes this particular request is ill advised.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the man contacted him, apparently seeking his support.
“My personal advice to him was that he should withdraw that request, that it was damaging to the cause of open government,” Nixon said.
The man, who uses the online identities “Anon ymous,” “Alex Jones Teleprompter Technician,” and “Publius Publicus,” filed the records request via email last week.
Over the weekend, he sent the county a followup email making clear he is considering a lawsuit.
He’d earlier visited the sheriff’s office, reportedly carrying a video camera and wearing a reflective vest featuring the word, “Media.”
He demanded to see sheriff’s office policies, and apparently was dissatisfied when directed to the website where the information can be found.
The man’s records request soon followed.
“I hereby request copies, in whatever form available, of each and every document in your agency’s possession of any and every kind whatsoever without exception or limitation except as provided by narrow exception of law,” he wrote. “The date range that this request relates to, encompasses or covers begins at July 4th, 1776, and runs until today’s date, November 18th, 2014.”
The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. That was 85 years before Snohomish County came into being, and 113 years before Washington was recognized as a state.
The man did not respond to an email from The Herald regarding his records request.
Meeting the man’s demands won’t be simple, said Sara Di Vittorio, the deputy prosecutor who supervises the county’s response to public records requests.
Because the man is seeking every sheriff’s office record, the county has had to explore options for retaining materials that it otherwise routinely discards. That includes recordings of inmate telephone calls, which are monitored at the county jail, and recorded over after a brief retention period. Other materials that were no longer needed, and destined for shredders, also had to be gathered up.
“It realistically resulted in people ‘Dumpster diving,” Di Vittorio said.
While the request appears to be designed to vex, it also appears to be valid under the law, prosecutors say.
Refusal to start gathering records or otherwise failing to respond could expose the county to penalties of up to $100 a day, should the man prevail in a public records lawsuit, Di Vittorio said.
“We as a government agency don’t have a choice. We have to evaluate the liability consequences” of ignoring or otherwise resisting compliance with a legal records request, she said.
Mishandling public records requests has proven costly for the county this year. It recently agreed to pay $575,000 to resolve a public records lawsuit from Citizens for Sustainable Development, a group that was seeking information about agricultural policies in the Snohomish River floodplain. It also agreed to pay $95,000 to resolve a lawsuit over the jail staff’s failure to disclose security-camera footage relating to a young inmate’s death.
Di Vittorio in September told a legislative committee that some are using the records act as a “weapon of retaliation and a weapon of harassment.” She drew attention to the workload created by Anne Block, a prolific records requester from Gold Bar, but similar headaches have been caused by people on the county payroll. The most infamous example is that of “Edmond Thomas,” who in reality was Kevin Hulten, a junior aide to Aaron Reardon who used a pseudonym to file numerous records requests targeting people he considered his boss’ political rivals.
State law generally does not allow governments to pick and choose how to respond to individual records requesters. In 2011, legislators tweaked the law to generally bar inmates from collecting fines in records cases and also created a process to enjoin people serving a criminal sentence from using records laws to harass or intimidate others.
The city of Everett earlier this year used that provision of the law to obtain a court order blocking records requests from an inmate they were able to show was conspiring with others in an attempt to shake down the city.
Nixon, of the open government coalition, said the records law also contains provisions that should be helpful to the county now in responding to the request made to the sheriff’s office.
“From my perspective the county doesn’t need to drop everything,” Nixon said. “They just need to give him a reasonable estimate of when they can produce the records.”
The state’s records law is clear that an agency can provide records in installments. In a request of this nature, supplying all the materials the man wants reasonably could take years, Nixon said.
The man is not the same person who has been making headlines in Seattle for filing records request to obtain police body-camera video.
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office is taking steps to comply with the records demand from their unidentified records requester.
On Thursday, sheriff’s Capt. Tom Davis sent an email to all sheriff’s office employees alerting them of the request and its implications.
“Essentially, you must retain everything and not delete anything,” he wrote. “We are currently working with the Prosecutor’s Office to best address the request itself and simultaneously working with (information systems) to address collection and storage options. We will let you know if and when there are changes to this directive.”
Scott North: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snorthnews
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