—– By: Ann Costantino —–
The state’s Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) Compliance Board upheld Baltimore County Public Schools’ request for fees on Monday, in which an attorney for the school board asked The Baltimore Post for $1,210.33 in exchange for 122 emails concerning a procurement audit completed earlier this spring.
At nearly $10 per email – to search for, review and redact each one – the compliance board ruled that the fees were reasonable, but said that they were subject to revision if the time to redact them resulted in less time than originally quoted.
“As for counsel’s estimated review time… we have no reason to believe it is inflated. Of course, counsel should only charge for the actual amount of time he spends on review,” the report stated.
Government agencies are permitted to charge reasonable fees to search for, review, redact and print public information, which itself is free. But sometimes steep MPIA fees block the release of information, intended for the public. The per-hour rate also depends on who is handling the request which is decided by an agency’s public information custodian.
Following the results of a procurement audit of the school system in April, The Baltimore Post requested emails between members of the school board and audit firm, UHY Advisors.
After several long delays, in June, school board attorney, Andrew Nussbaum, at first requested The Baltimore Post pay $2,225 in order for him to review and redact “hundreds of emails.”
In response, The Baltimore Post filed for a review by the compliance board which reviews cases when more than $350 is requested for public documents.
What Nussbaum initially reported as being “hundreds of emails,” subsequently became “3,000 emails” and finally resulted in “122 emails,” after the law office modified its search criteria in response to The Baltimore Post’s complaint filed with the compliance board.
But although Nussbaum said initially it would take him 10 hours to redact 3,000 emails – at his rate of $225 per hour (roughly $0.75 per email) – when the emails reduced to 122, the cost estimate was revised to over $1,200 for search fees and four hours needed for Nussbaum to redact the emails (roughly $10 per email). No explanation was given to The Baltimore Post as to why Nussbaum would require more time to review fewer emails or why the cost increased by a staggering factor of 13 times the initial cost per email.
The compliance board also noted the disparity, but upheld its decision to support Nussbaum’s request, pending possible adjustment at his discretion.
Yet, although the board agreed with Nussbaum, it questioned hours the law office said it spent to conduct initial searches prior to Nussbaum’s request of The Baltimore Post to pay for his services at his standard hourly attorney rate.
That it would take more than seven hours to query an email archive—even where 17 individual custodians are involved—strikes us as high.
The board said, “According to the School Board, it took IT professional [sic] more than seven hours to conduct the initial search for potentially responsive email communications in the School Board’s email archive. In addition, staff in the School Board’s Office of Law apparently spent at least two hours formulating the relevant search terms and transferring the potentially responsive records to counsel for review. That it would take more than seven hours to query an email archive—even where 17 individual custodians are involved—strikes us as high. Once search terms have been established and custodians identified, we assume the amount of time expended on the electronic queries themselves would be much less than seven hours.”
Baltimore County schools’ law office routinely assesses The Baltimore Post fees – sometimes thousands of dollars – to pay for records, citing significant time for staff to search for documents. The response for the requested UHY emails was no different.
In April, UHY completed its nearly yearlong audit of Baltimore County schools after former Superintendent Dallas Dance was convicted of perjury for withholding information on his financial disclosure statements when he worked as a consultant while leading the school system.
But former school board member, Ann Miller, who had served on the board at the time the contract for UHY was approved, said that the school system hired a consulting arm of the company and not the national audit firm that she and other school board members unanimously approved.
Miller characterized the move as a “bait and switch,” in an interview with WBFF-TV and said the terms of the request for proposals for the firm – and the consultants who actually performed the audit – were dissimilar.
As reported previously by The Baltimore Post, some messages obtained through a public information request for UHY and school board communications showed the school system and UHY consultants negotiated cases of serious violations versus what could be deemed a lesser infraction or simple need for improvement.
The former school board members – whose terms ended last December – felt UHY’s report indicated that subsequent and more detailed audit phases – which were planned after Phase One – were no longer needed since the first phase produced a “clean bill of health.”
Miller argued that an auditor would have acted independently instead of seeking input from a client on such matters, prior to presenting determinations, indicating that the firm’s results were watered down due to the downgrade to the company’s consulting services.
Still, UHY presented its report last spring and found a number of violations. The report also stated that financial disclosure statements for various staff members were unavailable since they had been destroyed in advance of the audit.
The Baltimore Post reported on the shredding of roughly 2,600 financial disclosure documents last summer, after discovering the record destruction occurred while a Baltimore Post reporter had been actively requesting the documents.
For nearly one year, The Post pressed for details surrounding the sudden destruction of the financial forms, but found that – other than a log documenting the destruction of those forms – protected emails are the only known record of the shredding.
The Baltimore Post lost a battle for those emails last week when the school board upheld school system attorney, Margaret-Ann Howie’s previous determinations that the emails between herself and school board members – concerning the shredding of documents that occurred in the office that she leads – were protected and privileged information.
Howie also stated, through numerous MPIA request responses, that there were no costs associated with the shredding, although the law office claims to have destroyed tens of thousands of documents over two days without the assistance of shredding companies with which the school system is contracted.
The Baltimore Post will not pursue the UHY emails.