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Letter tries to stop e-mail probe
Sheriff’s lawyer claims office is exempt from computer investigation

By Sheryl Marsh
smarsh@decaturdaily.com · 340-2437

A notice to Morgan County officials that their computer hard drives would be searched drew a letter from Sheriff Greg Bartlett’s Gadsden lawyer, who claims that constitutional powers exempt the sheriff’s computer from investigation.

The letter addressed and faxed to Bartlett from attorney Donald Rhea was also faxed to the Wilmer & Lee law firm of Huntsville, which forwarded it to County Commission Chairman pro tem Stacy George on Wednesday.

George said Chris Comer of Wilmer & Lee, which the commission hired to conduct the probe, called him and said the letter’s intent was to tell him to cease probing the Sheriff Department’s computer e-mails.

“The letter doesn’t stop our investigation,” George said. “These computers belong to the county taxpayers, and no official is exempt. We have offered the sheriff an opportunity to be present while his computer equipment is analyzed, and beyond that I don’t see what he’s trying to conceal. The computer expert is a Hoover law enforcement officer, anyway. He’s quite familiar with homeland security issues.”

When the commission first moved to look at the way employees and elected officials were using county computers, Bartlett warned George that if he sent a server disc to the Huntsville firm he would be violating homeland security laws. Wednesday, Bartlett’s lawyer said the issue is constitutional and involves “separation of powers.”

Rhea’s letter states, “it is imperative that the commission refrain from any respect undertaking an investigation into the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department and detention facility on the authority of a resolution or directive issued by the commission. The fundamental concern at issue in this matter involves separation of powers.

“As a member of the executive branch of government, you and those persons working for you not only have a right to privacy but indeed have a right to be free from intrusive investigations from the legislative branch of government.”

County Attorney Bill Shinn has said that information on county computers is public record.

There is no mention in Rhea’s letter that county records are public or that Bartlett and his employees are paid with county taxpayers’ money.

George’s notice to officials also prompted a request from another official to be present while a computer forensic specialist imaged her computer hard drive, an official said.

David Hannah, the county’s data processing manager, said Revenue Commissioner Amanda Scott asked if she could be present while the computer investigator imaged her hard drive. Hannah said he told her he did not know.

George said he would check with the investigator, but he feels sure that Scott cannot be present.

“We don’t want any appearance of impropriety,” George said. “So far, we have not heard from any other officials beside the sheriff and Ms. Scott.”

Earlier Wednesday, Hannah and an employee picked up hard drives from all four commissioners’ district shops and delivered them to the courthouse. Those hard drives, along with Chairman John Glasscock’s hard drive, were locked in a vault overnight.

The computer expert will start imaging the hard drives today with a schedule that includes Bartlett, Scott, and all other elected officials, appointed employees and department heads.

The commission fired the county human resources director four weeks ago after learning that he sent Glasscock a racy e-mail almost a year ago. Glasscock then forwarded it to Decatur Mayor Don Kyle who said he told Glasscock not to send him any more.

Rhea is the attorney Bartlett hired when he sued the commission in federal court over jail staffing.

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