Port says personal emails are not the public’s business

By Brooke Williams | inewsource

If U-T San Diego CEO John Lynch is still sending emails to the personal account of Port Commissioner and Congressman-elect Scott Peters, you won’t know it.

The Unified Port of San Diego has declined to release any communication about the public’s business that might exist in Peters’ personal accounts, saying state law doesn’t require it. But the issue isn’t that clear cut. Courts across the country are divided over public access to private accounts.

This issue took center stage locally when inewsource requested all of Peters’ communication, including any in personal accounts, with Lynch, U-T Publisher Doug Manchester and city councilman Carl DeMaio, who was running for San Diego mayor. The inquiry was part of the inewsource and KPBS investigation into the newspaper owners’ political and financial connections with public officials.

Although Peters spoke to inewsource, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

A Public Records Act request turned up an email Lynch sent to Peters’ personal address. That email became public when Peters forwarded it to a Port attorney’s official email account.

From here the story takes some twists ….

Before he forwarded it, Peters deleted a sentence in which Lynch threatened “to lead a campaign to disband the PORT [sic]” if the port did not agree to provisions he wanted in a long-term lease.

In the following weeks, Peters was not completely upfront about the email. Public documents bear this out.

On Sept. 27, Peters told inewsource, “I never got your request” when asked why he allowed an altered email to be released as a public record. However, inewsource obtained a document that showed Peters was alerted on Aug. 28 that the email he truncated was being released in response to a public records request.

This is what Michelle Ganon, the Port’s communications director, told Peters in an email with the subject line “Email responsive to PRA request:”

“The Port Attorney and Office of District Clerk consider your email exchange with John Lynch, dated 8/10/12, responsive to her request, so I will provide her a copy of the exchange, which I’ve attached to this email.”

Peters had another chance to provide the entire email before the one he excerpted was published. On Sept. 20, an inewsource reporter called him specifically to ask about what might be missing, saying “emails don’t always speak for themselves.”

Peters told the reporter he is careful to try and ensure his emails do speak for themselves and said other than Lynch saying “thanks for writing back,” there was no other communication.

A week later, after inewsource and KPBS published a months long investigation into how Lynch and Manchester were politically positioning to push forward their vision for a football stadium at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal downtown–Peters gave the full version to Scott Lewis, CEO Voice of San Diego.

In a subsequent interview with inewsource, on Sept. 27, Peters said he turned it over because Lewis asked.

“I would have been happy if you had asked me about it,” Peters said. “I’m not sure it’s a public record.”

He said he removed Lynch’s threat to “avoid making the battle any bigger.”

Peters did not respond to an email asking why he didn’t come forward with the entire conversation when asked if anything was missing on Sept. 20.

Now that he has been elected to Congress – Peters doesn’t have to release any of his email – official – or otherwise. Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

                U-T San Diego CEO John Lynch talked with KPBS reporter Amita Sharma on Sept. 27.

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Lorie Hearn

Lorie Hearn is the founder and executive director of inewsource.

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