Los Alamos County Attorney Alvin Leaphart, second from right, speaks during Monday’s special meeting of the Los Alamos County Council. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Councilors held a special meeting Monday morning at which they voted unanimously to waive any attorney-client privilege associated with eight emails send to and by Councilor Pete Sheehey in 2017 on the issue of the County Sheriff’s duties.
Council Chair Sara Scott said the meeting was being held because of a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act to make sure the County was not just responsive to the request but responsive within the required time frame. She said four of the responsive emails were subject to attorney-client privilege and that for the other four, the attorney-client privilege was not clear. Release of any document subject to attorney-client privilege must be approved by Council.
The May 23 IPRA request in question was made by former candidate for sheriff, James Whitehead. Under that request Whitehead asked for all email from former Sheriff Marco Lucero and his wife, Sandy, to Councilor Pet Sheehey as well as “any emails forwarded or composed regarding any subject discussed with the Sandy or Marco Lucero”.
“I wish to inspect all email that were composed by Councilor Sheehey and any other Los Alamos County employee or elected official regarding or related to any email associated with the subjects of correspondence from Sandy and Marco Lucero,” the request reads.
Whitehead amended the request to ask for “all email to and from Sheehey in regards to email sent to Mr. Sheehy by Sandy and/or Marco Lucero from Nov. 1, 2016 to May 20, 2019”.
The Los Alamos Reporter reached out to Whitehead Friday afternoon about this IPRA request and another request for records from Los Alamos Police Department but he declined to comment.
At Monday’s meeting, County Attorney Alvin Leaphart said the issue with the emails is more of form rather than substance.
“Generally when our office communicates with a Council member or any department head about somewhat mundane things like memoranda of understanding or how to wordsmith a resolution or some of the technical advice we give that isn’t very earth-shattering, those communications typically fall in a category of privileged information,” he said. “Sometimes those emails get sort of moved around and sometimes fall outside the scope of people who receive them who are not party to the attorney-client privilege and it just raises questions about whether the privilege is still intact.”
Leaphart said the emails in question related to Sheehey’s attempt to work with the resolution and memorandum of understanding with the sheriff and contained nothing about any kind of trial strategy or anything like that.
“It’s just the way sometimes communications get shifted around pretty quick as to whether or not the attorney-client privilege is there. We reviewed it and it wasn’t clear to us and so we felt this should be brought to Council to clear up any ambiguity. We had no objection to the privilege being waived given the mundane nature of these documents. It’s just the unfortunate complications that come along with attorney client relationships with a local government and the IPRA creates these kinds of issues from time to time” Leaphart said.
Present by phone at the meeting, Councilor Sheehey said when he first heard about the issue, he was concerned that he had inadvertently or otherwise disclosed privileged information to an unauthorized person.
“In fact, the emails are exchanges between myself, then Sheriff (Marco) Lucero and the County Attorney, all of which are covered within attorney-client privilege and I would certainly not disclose information that violates attorney-client privilege or compromise our County’s position. As the County Attorney pointed out, this was an effort to head off some litigation. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful in doing so, however, the details of this effort, I’m perfectly comfortable for the public to see as is potentially their right under IPRA, but in fact I don’t see any point in trying to withhold this information. I certainly don’t see anything scandalous there and I think in the interest of transparency, I think we should just let people see what was there,” he said.
The second IPRA request filed by Whitehead was not part of Monday’s discussion. In that request he has requested all records for the past 10 years relating to Los Alamos County employees that have received a citation from Los Alamos Police Department while operating County vehicles and equipment. He also requested “all email to and from employees of Los Alamos Police Department discussing the enforcement of the speed limits within Los Alamos County for the past two years.