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Tripped up by records questions, Ally Miller flees Supes meeting

Board votes to expedite release; Miller flouted legal advice with demands

Forced to acknowledge that she has not revealed records of public business she conducts using her personal accounts, Supervisor Ally Miller quickly left a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, even as officials continued to discuss her month-long stonewalling of reporters' questions about ex-staffer Timothy DesJarlais' bizarre sham news website.

Her acquiescence in the face of strong questioning by the other supervisors was a tacit admission that her earlier response to TucsonSentinel.com's request for records was based on a falsehood.

The Board voted 4-0, with Miller absent, for county staff to "immediately" respond to requests for records —some of which were made more than four weeks ago. The Board also stated that any individual not complying with the expedited full release of public documents would be "acting in their own private capacity" — which would mean that the deep pockets of the county would not back their legal defense.

The Supervisors also voted to release a June 9 confidential opinion from the Pima County Attorney's Office that informed the District 1 Republican that there was no legal grounding for her insistence on charging thousands of dollars for paper copies instead of complying with requests for electronic copies. Miller had attempted to charge $1 per page for thousands of pages of documents before even beginning to review them, and even continued to insist on charging for paper even after she was directly informed she could not provide printouts instead of electronic files.

"Any records related to county business whatsoever will be provided," Miller said Tuesday. "Anything I have on my personal devices will be turned over."

Prior to leaving in the middle of the oft-heated meeting, Miller did not address the issue of the public records contained in the personal email and Facebook accounts of her staffers, nor the public records that may be possessed by her former staffer, DesJarlais.

Miller has slow-walked records requests from TucsonSentinel.com and other news organizations, and only within the last week finally provided documents — which were tardy, incomplete and blacked-out in a slipshod manner. And she has not yet provided any of the documents requested relating to her personal email address and Facebook account — where she is known to conduct much of her business as a supervisor.

Just Monday, Miller stated that she and her staff "do not use their private cellphones/smartphones, or private email accounts, for county business," Board Clerk Robin Brigode told TucsonSentinel.com.

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Tuesday morning, questioned by other members of the Board, Miller abandoned that position and said she would release information from her personal accounts.

"It's an embarrassing situation," said Supervisor Ray Carroll, "... one supervisor stonewalling at the expense of the public trust and the public coffers."

Supervisor Sharon Bronson, the board's chair, said she wanted the records issue addressed at the meeting because she "became increasingly concerned about the potential risk, liability to the county if we did not comply."

Miller did not provide any records until after the possible release of the confidential admonishment from the County Attorney's Office was put on the meeting agenda last week. The next morning, a deluge of electronic files were sent to reporters.

Tuesday, members of the Board asked reporters, including me, for input and comments on the ongoing difficulty of obtaining the requested records.

Miller did not answer the question when I asked her when she would release the public records she has yet to turn over, which were first requested for on May 18.

Instead, she diverted her remarks to outline her previous responses, saying "on average it has taken 13.7 business days" to supply public records. State law mandates that public records be "promptly" provided to anyone who asks to inspect them. At another point during the meeting, Miller said she first received a request on May 20. Another time during the meeting, she said she first received a request on May 19.

Moments after being pressed about releasing the documents, about five minutes before noon, as I and Star reporter Joe Ferguson continued to respond to queries from the Board, Miller gathered a stack of binders and announced that she had an "urgent appointment" and had to leave the meeting. She quickly left the room through a door behind the dais.

Board of Supervisors meetings, which begin at 9 a.m., routinely run past noon. Miller did not say what meeting was more important than the supervisors dealing with the pledge of a media lawsuit to compel compliance with Arizona law.

Unusual meeting

The supervisors had been scheduled to discuss the issue in executive session, obtaining legal advice behind closed doors.

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Instead, Supervisor Richard Elias moved to talk in front of the public.

"This is about public records; it should be done in public," he said.

Miller seconded the motion to hold the discussion in front of the attendees at the meeting, and the rest of the Board agreed.

Some of the supervisors asked members of the press, including me, to speak about the ongoing difficulties in inspecting public records regarding Miller's office and the conduct of her now-former aide, DesJarlais, who quit his post as reporters continued to probe why he launched a sham news site under an alias while masquerading as a reporter. DesJarlais conducted some of his activities related to the "Arizona Daily Herald" while on the clock as a county employee.

Missing pages, missing files

Generally, reporters refrain from directly taking part in public meetings, but the Star's Ferguson and I responded to those requests, providing information and details about the slow pace of responses, and how some documents have been provided only in part or been improperly redacted, and how some requests have been ignored.

Ferguson, speaking toward the end of meeting after Miller left, noted that she had claimed in a radio interview to have processed some 8,000 pages in response to requests but that "nowhere near" that number been provided to the public.

Judging by her numbers, there are "6,000 documents that we don't have and have never seen," he said. "We're concerned about that just as much as redactions."

The District 1 Republican had already left the meeting, but the Star reporter asked the rest of the Board, "Did she lie?" about the number of pages, or are there documents that have not been turned over?

In response to the supervisors, I ran down the lengthy delays to our requests for documents, which began on May 18, after Miller did not respond to a phone call about DesJarlais' activities. I told them that none of the requested metadata — the generally hidden portion of an email that tracks its route through the Internet — had been turned over with any emails. The state Supreme Court has held that metadata is an integral part of a public record and must be supplied when requested.

I noted the oddly missing files from DesJarlais' county computer. A county IT staffer tried to explain that away by claiming that when someone closes a browser window the information is automatically purged — "the cookies and all of those things do go away." Yet other computers in Miller's office — except hers, as she has said she rarely turns it on — contained extensive browser histories, in stark contrast to DesJarlais' computer.

With few exceptions, the history from his computer in Miller's office only listed sites visited on June 3 — his last day working there. Although computer files from Miller's office had been requested on May 18, it was not until June 7 that county IT staffers retrieved the web histories and other browser files from those computers.

On June 9, those files were released to TucsonSentinel.com. I explained to Board how DesJarlais' browser history was nearly barren despite thousands of other records in his computer indicating he was using the Internet, and that "the only reasonable explanation for that was that someone erased it."

Questioned Tuesday by Carroll about the lack of browser history and whether there were backups, county IT chief Jesse Rodriguez said, "We looked, and there was nothing there."

When we received the files in which DesJarlais' computer activity didn't add up — with cookies and cached images shown from dates on which there was no browser history provided — we made a followup request, asking for any and all backups of Internet logs and histories. The county provided logs from its Websense anti-spam/porn filter, but no additional browser histories. Those files list which web servers were visited, but not which pages or files on each site.

Rodriguez told the supervisors that web histories are kept backed up for 90-120 days. "Any information that is held in a computer, we still keep," he said.

TucsonSentinel.com has filed another followup request for that information.

I told the supervisors of our concerns about the inconsistent and legally unfounded redactions that had been done on many of the documents that were released, with email addresses — including those used by Miller — having been blacked out with a marker.

I emphasized that, despite our first request for information having been made May 18, we had not received any response at all regarding the public records to be found on the personal devices and accounts of Miller and her staff until being informed just on Monday that she had no such records.

Board Clerk Robin Brigode emailed just after 4 p.m., saying that "Supervisor Miller and current District 1 staff (Di Filippo yet to respond) reported they do not have county-issued cellphones/smartphones and do not use their private cellphones/smartphones, or private email accounts, for county business."

It's well-known that Miller conducts much of her work as a supervisor using private emails and messages from her personal Facebook account. Former employees have provided TucsonSentinel.com with substantial documentation of her practices.

Indeed, even the documents provided by Miller disprove her claim, as they contained an exchange — forwarded to another Miller aide's county email, which otherwise used entirely personal email accounts — between her, DesJarlais, and Miller staffers Sherry Potter and JoAnn DeFilippo, regarding a press release that was posted on the supervisor's taxpayer-funded website.

Further, last week Miller provided DesJarlais' "confession" about the Herald as a public record. Although the email addresses were blacked-out on the paper copies that were released, Miller's address to which it was sent was clearly her personal Yahoo email.

It's not illegal in Arizona to use private communications for public business. It is a clear violation of the law to not release those public records on request. It is also against the law for a record to be "destroyed or improperly maintained," with "potential criminal sanctions," Chief Civil Deputy Pima County Attorney Thomas Weaver told the supervisors.

Miller dodged the question when Supervisor Sharon Bronson asked if she would release the public information stored in her personal accounts in an electronic form as was requested.

She also said that "I can't speak for other people in my office; I can't control their personal devices."

"Supervisor Miller told the clerk ... just yesterday that her office doesn't use personal email to conduct county business," Carroll said. "Yet the very email record she's turned over the media that was accidentally not fully redacted proves that she does use personal emails to conduct county business."

Miller wasn't happy with Carroll's using documents to demonstrate that she uses her personal email for government business.

"I am not going to be interrogated by Supervisor Carroll, I've answered the question," she said.

Later in the meeting, after Miller had walked out, Carroll said that, "I don't want to cover up for Supervisor Miller any longer. I haven't been doing that to this point — I want to know, how do we get to the bottom of this."

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Supervisor Ramon Valadez, who crafted the motions to put the Board's weight behind full disclosure of the relevant records, said that Miller "clearly told us in public, on the record, that she will turn over that information."

Miller's actions are "putting the county in jeopardy of a lawsuit we can't win," Carroll said.

"There seems to be this cloud of omission that's floating around up here, and a member of the Board who couldn't even stick with this discussion," Elias said.

After discussing the issue, the supervisors voted 4-0 to instruct staff to speedily release the records that were requested. They also voted to "direct the county attorney that it is the official position of this Board to fully comply with the public records requests," and "make it very, very clear .. that any position that differs from fully complying with the public records request is ... one person acting in their own and private capacity."

The effect of that would be to withdraw the county's legal backing if Miller and her staff do not turn over the requested documents.

Criminal investigation

Miller and DesJarlais each filed FBI crime reports when they were touting the story that a different person was responsible for the "Herald."

"It kind of raises the stakes to make a federal case out of it," I told the supervisors Tuesday.

Miller also contacted the Tucson Police Department, after I provided her with a contact for the head of TPD's cyber unit at her request.

Two weeks ago, Miller said she did not contact the Pima County Sheriff's Department about her allegations because her office is located "in the city." She said then that she had not contacted TPD because she did not know if they investigated online crimes.

Tuesday, she said that TPD "has an active investigation" and that she "met with them for about an hour ... we are waiting to hear back from them."

"The FBI ... I have a phone call in, and my contact there will be coming in to Pima County, hopefully in the near future, and see if there's any criminal activity," Miller said.

Demands for payment flouted attorney's advice

Despite the obvious conflict of interest for an elected official to be redacting records requested from her office, Miller has said she was using a marker to black out information on the printed-out copies of emails herself.

Miller billed the Star $1,171.80 for emails, and said that the records that had not been provided to TucsonSentinel.com would cost nearly $1,200. Both news outlets informed county officials that we would not pay for long-delayed records that should be readily provided at minimal cost in an electronic format.

Miller repeatedly told county officials that she would not release documents until news outlets paid, even as legal advisors told her she was on shaky ground.

On May 24, she informed Board Clerk Robin Brigode that TucsonSentinel.com should be charged $1 per page for 1,900 pages. On June 6, she dropped her price to $665 for the same number of pages.

On June 7, she had the clerk convey to TucsonSentinel.com a bill for $1,199.45 for 3,400 pages. That same day, Deputy County Attorney Kelly Friar wrote her that "the government is not allowed to charge for the costs associated with either the search for the records or the redaction process."

The next two days, Friar again sent emails to Miller, telling her that she could not levy charges for paper documents when electronic records had been requested.

Miller continued to not turn the records over.

On June 9, Friar sent Miller the privileged memo that was made public Tuesday, telling the District 1 supervisor that her stance "would not be likely to prevail in court":

In light of the statutory language, the court rulings set forth here and in the countless other cases, and the fact that once redactions are made the County has the ability to scan the pages and produce them electronically at a very small cost to both the government and the requestor, we believe that you would not be likely to prevail in court if you continue to insist on providing paper copies at 35-cent per page.

Yet, Miller continued to not turn the records over.

On June 12, the supervisor wrote to the board clerk: "again, once the 35 cents per page has been paid, we will proceed with the request."

In another email to Brigode the same day, she wrote, "My staff will not commence work on public records requests until the 35 cents per page has been paid."

Last week, board attorney Thomas Weaver asked that the records issue be placed on this Tuesday's executive session agenda. Last Thursday, Miller released thousands of pages in electronic form, which the Clerk of the Board's Office emailed.

Other requests — notably the public documents to be found in the personal emails, Facebook accounts and text messages of Miller and her staff, including former staffer DesJarlais — remain unfilled.

Both TucsonSentinel.com and the Star, as well as representatives of other news outlets, have stated we are willing to press our case in court to prompt the full disclosure of records as required by state law.

Work ahead

Bronson said she wants to convene a meeting with county officials and members of the press to craft an improved process for dealing with public records requests. She also pushed the other supervisors throughout the meeting to address the immediate issue of the records from Miller's office.

Bronson said that the county lacked a "very cohesive policy," especially regarding redactions, and said she had hoped the Board would vote for an immediate release of all of the requested documents.

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1 comment on this story

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1768 comments
Jun 22, 2016, 11:49 am
-0 +2

It has been made abundantly clear that the voters in this town either don’t pay attention to this sort of thing, or that they just don’t care. So, as convoluted as deceptive as this situation is, I doubt it will influence the election one way or the other. It should, but it won’t.

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Click image to enlarge

Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Supervisor Ally Miller leaves Tuesday's meeting just before noon.

Earlier - June 13

Ex-Ally Miller staffer 'confesses' he was behind bizarre blog

Timothy DesJarlais, a staffer for Ally Miller who quit his post after becoming the focus of an ongoing investigation into a peculiar political website, the "Arizona Daily Herald," owned up to his lies — at least in part.

After repeatedly denying involvement, inventing fake identities to divert attention, and a filing false federal crime report pointing the finger at another Republican, DesJarlais wrote a "confession" to Miller, and an apology to the man he tried to frame for what he and Miller earlier called criminal acts related to the website. Miller has yet to respond to public records requests for documents that could have made evident DesJarlais' involvement weeks ago, and could still clear up questions that remain about the extent of activities in her office.

In his emails, DesJarlais, a 19-year-old University of Arizona student who had been an employee in Miller's office since February, disclosed some of the convoluted dodges and repeated false statements he made to the public and, according to his statement, to Miller.

DesJarlais' confession came after weeks of denials that he was involved with the fake website, and repeated attacks on the press investigating the matter by him, Miller, and her surrogates.

Miller on June 10 — the day that DesJarlais publicly re-launched the site but claimed he had "purchased" it from the anonymous person who'd set it up — denied that she had any involvement with the website, or prior knowledge that her former aide was behind it.

In the email made public Monday, June 13, DesJarlais admitted to masquerading as a reporter and creating the "Arizona Daily Herald" site, which was set up in April.

In addition to his involvement in the sham news website — although records from a computer used by DesJarlais in Miller's office were scrubbed before they were released — some of the remaining files indicate that he was improperly conducting activities related to his own political campaign while being paid by taxpayers.

Miller released a paper copy of an email that was apparently sent to her by her former communications staffer on Saturday.

In the email, which bore the subject line "Confession Regarding the AZ Herald," DesJarlais admitted what had been clear to outside observers for weeks: that he was behind the supposed news website, the "Arizona Daily Herald."

In the email, the former staffer admitted to repeated lies, although his account fell well short of untangling the complex web of fake identities and false statements he concocted in an attempt to cover his tracks and divert attention from himself and his boss's office. In fact, despite the labyrinth of lies, DesJarlais made some basic slip-ups that made his exposure inevitable once reporters began to dig into the scheme.

One person who early on had suspected DesJarlais' involvement and confronted him about it said Monday that the staffer "does have a problem with dealing with the truth" and disputed some of the details in his account.

"It appears Timothy is lying again in his apology letter to Ally," said Gini Crawford, the campaign manager for Marla Closen, a Republican running in the primary on the other side of the county from Miller's district.

DesJarlais did not respond to detailed questions TucsonSentinel.com sent to him.

Miller said the previous Tuesday that she "had to take (DesJarlais) at his word" when he told her he was not behind the website, which was launched in May under a pseudonym used by DesJarlais elsewhere online. When he publicly re-launched the website, while denying he had anything to do with its earlier incarnation, Miller said, "Things aren't looking very good for Mr. DesJarlais. If he was involved, I want him prosecuted."

Besides emailing Miller, DesJarlais also wrote to the GOP activist whom he publicly claimed was behind the site as he tried to cover-up his involvement. DesJarlais not only told Miller that John Dalton was responsible for the site, but filed a report with the FBI naming him. The former Miller staffer, who resigned on June 3 because of the investigation by TucsonSentinel.com and other news outlets, told Dalton over the weekend that "I am indeed the author" of the Herald, and asked that he "mercifully consider not pressing any charges against me" for connecting Dalton with the site.

Dalton said that he was consulting with an attorney and was considering filing suit over the matter.

What did they know, and when did they know it?

Between the confessions, false claims, various emails from various real and fake parties denying involvement in the situation, and Miller's delay in releasing records, the "Herald" situation prompts plenty of questions that haven't been answered.

Among them (although you probably have some more of your own at this point):

What did Miller, or any of the other members of her staff, know about DesJarlais' pretending to be a reporter to burnish his boss's reputation — and when did they know it?

Why did DesJarlais file an FBI report knowing that it contained false allegations?

Will the real John Dalton sue for being improperly fingered by DesJarlais and Miller, and what might that cost the taxpayers?

What is in those records that has Miller stalling their release?

When will Miller and her staffers — including ex-staffer DesJarlais — turn over the public records they have stored in their personal accounts?

What happened to the browser history on DesJarlais' office computer?

Why did it take weeks for county IT staffers to pull those computer files?

Why did Miller think she could flout the advice of county legal advisors regarding her refusal to provide electronic records?

Why did DesJarlais persist in adding layers of lies to his tangled tale, even as reporters had readily connected him to the site because of his online alias, the posted photograph of the supervisors and, most concretely, the continued use of the same P.O. box?

If Miller did not know DesJarlais had pretended to be a reporter, at what point did she begin to doubt the twists and turns of his cover-ups? Why did she not then release the records?

Will Pima County fix its public records policies to eliminate obvious conflicts of interest and make its practices conform with the spirit and letter of state law?

What the hell was DesJarlais trying to accomplish, anyway?

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