The Department of Justice obtained temporary legal relief Tuesday to block the release of emails to and from an Iowa sheriff who serves on a federal board charged with building a high-speed broadband network for emergency responders.
Department lawyers requested an injunction in federal court in Des Moines to prevent Iowa's Story County from releasing Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald's emails to the news outlet Politico on Tuesday. In a batch of court filings, they argued the release could "seriously impede" plans for a single, interoperable network designed to resolve the communications problems that hampered responses to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks and other disasters.
Fitzgerald was appointed last year to serve on the board of FirstNet, which was created by Congress to develop and deploy the network and is housed in the Department of Commerce. Politico reported earlier this month that Fitzgerald has alleged that his fellow board members are tied too closely to the wireless industry, and have not given enough input to public safety professionals in developing plans for the $7 billion network.
Politico asked Story County to release emails related to FirstNet that Fitzgerald sent and received through his county email.
U.S. District Judge James Gritzner approved a temporary restraining order Tuesday afternoon that blocks the records' release for 14 days.
Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes said he had agreed not to fight the temporary order as a courtesy, but was still considering whether to seek the emails' release at a hearing that will be scheduled later. Politico declined comment.
Deputy Iowa Attorney General Julie Pottorff had advised the county that the federal government should decide how to respond to Politico's request since the emails relate to Fitzgerald's service for FirstNet. Her advice came after she consulted with Department of Commerce attorneys.
The county board voted 3-0 last week to release the records after receiving legal advice from Holmes in a closed session. Supervisor Wayne Clinton said the board believed it was required to disclose the records in a timely manner under Iowa's public records law.
The Department of Justice protested that decision, arguing the emails were federal records and that Congress had exempted FirstNet from the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In a letter to the county last Friday, Acting Associate Attorney General Elizabeth Taylor warned that Fitzgerald had sensitive information about FirstNet that might "potentially damage our first response ability if it were publicly released." The county declined to reconsider its decision but agreed to give the government an extra day, until Tuesday at close of business, to file for the court injunction before they'd be released.
In a court affidavit Tuesday, Fitzgerald wrote that he had used his county email to seek concerns and advice from public safety officials and consultants about building the network and to exchange views with other board members.
Board members had been assigned federal email accounts in September 2012, but they were not "widely or consistently used" because they required members to log in from a desktop or government-issued Blackberry, according to an affidavit by board secretary Uzoma Onyeije. That changed in June when members were warned about the Department of Commerce policy prohibiting the use of outside email addresses for official business, Onyeije said.
Fitzgerald said that he had entered into nondisclosure agreements with two people with whom he communicated, and that others had expected their input to remain confidential. He said that releasing "frank and open" discussions about board deliberations could slow progress in implementing the network and damage relationships with "partners, state entities and stakeholders."
DOJ said that it had only conducted a preliminary review of the emails and found they include sensitive and confidential procurement, personnel and management information. The department warned that the information's "release likely would seriously impede FirstNet's ability to create a nationwide broadband network to be used by first responders in the event of national emergencies and national disasters."