GRAND RAPIDS (WOOD) — Grand Rapids city administrators erased all secret recordings from the police department’s controversial phone Line 3407 despite pending legal requests for the calls, according to documents obtained by Target 8.
Records show the purging involved at least a year of calls.
“You’ve got to wonder what is so damaging that was on those recordings that the city had to destroy them over the weekend in order to keep the public from seeing them?” said ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Miriam Aukerman, who filed one of two Freedom of Information Act requests for the recordings.
Target 8 filed the other FOIA request.
“What is so damaging that the city would violate the Freedom of Information Act in order to destroy those recordings?” Aukerman said.
The city’s then-Information Technology Director Paul Klimas, who worked on the purge, told Target 8 he could have tried to retrieve the recordings in response to the FOIA requests but was never asked.
CALLS FROM PROSECUTOR’S CRASH
There’s no telling what was erased from the line, which was at the center of the case involving then-Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Josh Kuiper, who on Nov. 19, 2016, drove the wrong way and crashed into a parked car.
The five calls about that crash to Line 3407, obtained by Target 8 two years ago through a separate FOIA, were an embarrassment to the police department and the city.
“This crash out here is Josh Kuiper from the prosecutor’s office is hammered and going the wrong way on Union,” an officer at the scene told then-Lt. Matthew Janiskee, who was back at the police station acting as watch commander that night.
“Let’s pass him if we can, if we can’t we can’t. I would like to pass him on (field) sobriety (tests) if we can, just because,” Janiskee responded.
“We got him (Kuiper) home, he’s f—-d up, but we got him home,” a sergeant later said.
The incident led to the firing of Janiskee, the resignation of Kuiper and punishment for two officers.
It also led to court cases over the recording of a line labeled “unrecorded” that actually was being recorded.
RECORDINGS PURGED JUST AFTER JUDGE’S RULING
Emails recently obtained by Target 8 show that the purge in May of all recordings on the line involved the police department, the IT department, City Attorney Anita Hitchcock and City Manager Mark Washington.
They also show that the city manager’s office was aware that a year’s worth of Line 3407 recordings were still recoverable when the ACLU and Target 8 filed the recent FOIA requests.
“We thought there would be hundreds of hours of recordings,” the ACLU attorney told Target 8.
Klimas, the former IT director, said he doesn’t know how many recorded calls were on the system. He said he never listened to them.
The purge began after a federal judge ruled on Friday, May 24, 2019, that the city did not violate Janiskee’s rights by recording the phone line despite its “unrecorded” label. That ruling ended months of litigation.
Before 10 a.m. on the next business day, Monday, May 27, a private IT contractor working for the city emailed Klimas, the city’s IT director: “3407 recordings are gone. Checked them today, they have been purged.”
In an email to Target 8, the City Attorney’s Office said there were no pending FOIA requests at the time and that the purge followed the city’s schedules for retaining records.
“The City of Grand Rapids FOIA response team took all reasonable steps to analyze and respond to FOIA requests that came in following the litigation hold lift on May 24, 2019,” the city attorney said in the email.
‘DELETED … BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S GONE’
But Klimas told Target 8 that even though his department had purged the police computers, that didn’t mean the recordings were gone.
“They get deleted, but they don’t go away,” he told Target 8. “We started the purge process, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.”
The former IT director, now the IT director in Ottawa County, said he took his direction from the City Attorney’s Office.
As the purge continued, Klimas sent an email to Assistant City Manager Doug Matthews: “Note: All recordings were FOIAd — was a court order to release them. They are all public. Thought you might want to know.”
Klimas told Target 8 that the email was meant to inform the city manager’s office that the city had already fulfilled earlier FOIA requests when it released some recordings to WOOD TV8 and MLive in 2017.
Emails on May 28 show the purge was continuing, including this message from Assistant City Manager Matthews to the IT director and to GRPD Capt. David Schnurstein:
“As far as the remaining recordings go (those unrelated to litigation) we’re clear to proceed,” Matthews wrote.
Also on May 28, a day into the purge, the ACLU emailed its FOIA to the city for “all recordings made at any time on police line 3407” and all records, including emails, about the phone line.
But the next day, records show, the purge continued.
On May 29, Assistant City Manager Matthews emailed Klimas, the IT director: “Hey Paul. Can you provide an update on the process and timing for disposal of records as discussed? Want to provide Mark a specific update.”
The IT director responded: “Disposal of recordings of 3407 is underway. Since these reside on a city server, these records are recoverable for 14 days within backups.”
The former IT director told Target 8 that the backups were kept on a city server at data storage company Switch in Gaines Township.
“For 14 days, those recordings are somewhere” at Switch, he said.
In an email, the former IT director told Target 8 that he asked the city attorney’s office on June 3, several days into the purge, if he should try to recover the recordings, but that he was told not to.
On June 4, before those 14 days were up, Target 8 filed a FOIA for all recordings from that line, similar to the FOIA filed by the ACLU. Instead of trying to recover all the recordings, the city responded to the ACLU and WOOD TV8 FOIAs with recordings it had already released.
“The thing is, there was a 14-day backup,” said Aukerman of the ACLU. “So when those requests came in, that information was still very much there, still very much available, and still very much something they were required legally to produce.”
PRESS ATTORNEY: ‘IT RAISES QUESTIONS’
Michigan Press Association general counsel Robin Luce-Herrmann said she believes the purge violated the state FOIA.
At Target 8’s request, the MPA attorney reviewed the city emails.
“I think that it is an unusual case,” Luce-Hermmann said. “It raises questions that I think need to be answered.”
Aukerman said she had planned to pick the dates of high-profile incidents and listen to see if police used the secretly recorded line.
“It’s possible there were recordings about criminal cases; it’s possible there were recordings about very important community incidents,” Aukerman said.
“There were probably things on those recordings that were hugely embarrassing to the city, which is probably why they were destroyed,” she said.
Now she wants to know who in the city pushed for the purge.
“The first step here is really for the city to explain to the community what happened here, why was this information destroyed, on whose recommendation, by whose orders and what was on those recordings that they were so afraid that the public would hear?” Aukerman said.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE PURGE?
While the city manager is listed as a recipient of some of the emails, it’s not clear what role he played. Records show that the city manager sent one email about the purge, on May 28, to the assistant city manager and the city attorney:
“Please advise how and when that would happen,” the city manager wrote.
However, the city redacted the subject line and most of the text from that email when releasing records to Target 8. The city also redacted subject lines from some emails.
“When you look at these redactions, you do wonder, why black out subject lines?” the ACLU’s Aukerman said. “Why black out all of these names?”
The city manager refused to answer specific questions about the purge:
“My answer to you regarding this legal issue is that you should speak to the city attorney’s office regarding the decision that was made regarding this case,” he said.
He told Target 8 that City Attorney Anita Hitchcock was responsible for the purge.
“It was a legal matter and the decisions that occurred regarding that was the result of the City Attorney’s Office and the City Attorney’s decision, and I would suggest you talk to her,” Washington said.
When asked why the recordings were erased, the city attorney said, “Because we have a state-authorized retention period. We just followed the retention schedule.”
The city attorney refused to answer any other questions, including questions about the 14-day backup.
In an email statement to Target 8, the city attorney said the city could not legally release the recordings:
“The federal court’s decision that the recordings were inadvertent meant they were not public records subject to FOIA,” she wrote.
However, Target 8’s review of the federal court ruling shows the judge did not address the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, if the judge had ruled against the city and found that it had violated federal wiretapping laws, those calls could not have been released.
“The federal wire tap act generally prohibits individuals from intentionally intercepting wire, oral or electronic communication and also prohibits the use and disclosure of the contents of the communications obtained in violation of the statute,” U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney wrote in his ruling.