West Palm mayor: I’m to blame for sensitive emails posted online

(L-R) West Palm Beach mayor Jeri Muoio, city administrator Jeff Green, and city spokesperson/media contact Elliot Cohen hold press conference Tuesday afternoon to respond to the recent confidential information leak through the city's public record requests site, September 15, 2015. (Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post)

(L-R) West Palm Beach mayor Jeri Muoio, city administrator Jeff Green, and city spokesperson/media contact Elliot Cohen hold press conference Tuesday afternoon to respond to the recent confidential information leak through the city’s public record requests site, September 15, 2015. (Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post)

West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said in a press conference today that it was her idea to post records requests online, which resulted in the disclosure of sensitive police emails.

“All of us here in city hall … are very upset that these emails were out in the public,” she said. “They should not have been.”

Muoio said no one, including her spokesman, Elliot Cohen, who posted them online, was to blame for the mistake. Instead, the “process” failed.

The result was the release of closely guarded police secrets, including the names of targets in ongoing criminal investigations, the names of undercover officers and the identities of undercover informants.

Multiple investigations have been compromised, and the disclosures put multiple people’s lives at risk. Some of the investigations involved the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

City Administrator Jeff Green said city police have reached out to the other agencies to try to contain the damage from the release.

“(Police Chief Bryan Kummerlen) did say it was certainly something that hurt us in some respects and that they are working with the other agencies to try to limit whatever damage was done,” Green said.

As Muoio and Green explained, nearly all public records requests are handled by the city clerk.

But records requests from the media were handled by Cohen, per “policy,” Muoio said. That included a WPTV NewsChannel 5’s request for emails about the city’s faulty surveillance cameras.

Cohen asked the department’s embattled Information Technology department to carry out the request.

The IT department did the request, but it “wasn’t clear” what the next step was, she said. Someone should have sent the records to each department, such as the police department, to redact the records, she said.

“It’s not IT’s job to sort out the departments, and that’s where the breakdown was,” Muoio said.

Instead, IT gave the records, which disclosed the names of confidential informants and undercover officers – some of the department’s most closely guarded secrets – to Cohen, who posted them online, under the heading “transparency.”

That was a departure from normal policy, which is to give public records to the requester alone. Muoio said it was her idea to post them on the city’s website – an idea that she said she’s reconsidering.

“It was something that I thought about and discussed with Elliot and Mr. Green, and we just decided to move forward with it,” she said. “Apparently that may not be the best idea for our community.”

She said the move was to provide the public more information about the problem camera system – not an act of retribution against reporters. That’s how many in the media perceived it, however, since by publishing the records requests for all, including competitors, to see, it effectively eliminated any chance that reporters could generate scoops from the requests.

She said that to prevent future mistakes, the city clerk will handle all records requests from the media. The department will also store all police emails on a separate server that only they have access to.

She stood by Cohen, who also made the news last week after he blamed police for problems with the city’s surveillance cameras. Muoio had to hold a press conference last week to correct the record and say that the city, not police, were responsible for the problems.

“Elliot continues to be a valued member of our leadership team and will continue to be,” she said.

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