Nine months after it was filed, the results of an ethics investigation initiated by one Aberdeen City Council member against another are in and the ruling is that city councilwoman Ruth Elliott violated provisions of the City Code by divulging the contents of confidential internal emails to the city’s opponents in an ongoing lawsuit.
In short, Elliott, who broke ranks with the city’s former mayor and city council to oppose the proposal to annex the Wetlands Golf Course properties, appears to have forwarded a series of emails, which were originally sent from a city attorney to city manager Doug Miller relating to existing litigation between the city and a group of city taxpayers, to members of the group engaged in the lawsuit with Aberdeen.
The complaint was filed by former city councilman David Yensan in May, about six months before he lost his seat in the city’s November election, but the Aberdeen Ethics Commission didn’t reach its findings until late January. Elliott, who won her re-election bid and currently serves as Aberdeen City Council president, was particularly outraged that Yensan, in one of the privileged emails, refers to a “demented old woman.” Yensan later apologized for his statement, but clarified the comment was not directed toward Elliott.
It’s no secret that Yensan and Elliott despised one another and were the most bitter of enemies while sitting together for two years on the Aberdeen City Council, but it still was eye-opening to actually read the heading of the Ethics Commission report:
Complaint of David Yensen v. Ruth Elliott
According to the report:
“David A. Yensen, the Complainant who at the time of the incident in question was a Council member, filed a complaint with the City Ethics Commission against Council member Ruth Elliott, the Respondent. he Complainant alleges that the Respondent disclosed confidential information contained in an e-mail from an attorney representing the City and thereby violated Section 9-3 A (10) of the Aberdeen Code.”
Section 9-3 A of the City Code reveals that, “The following provisions shall apply to city elected officials, employees, members of the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals, and those persons shall not:
(10) Use or disclose confidential information acquired in their official city position for their own benefit or that of others.”
The genesis of Yensan’s complaint comes email sent in regard to a lawsuit Aberdeen was drawn into by a group of city taxpayers who alleged the mayor and city council imposed tax increases without going through the proper procedures or allowing citizens their right to speak on the matter.
Once again, from the Ethics Commission report:
“Lawrence F. Kreis, Jr., an attorney for the City, sent an e-mail to the City Manager regarding existing litigation between the City and a number of City taxpayers. The e-mail contained confidential information regarding the litigation in which the City was a defendant. (“E-mail 1”). The message in E-Mail 1 was followed by a specific written statement at the end of the e-mail text stating as follows:
“The information in this electronic transmission is confidential and intended only for the addressee. Any use or disclosure by any other person is unlawful. This information is protected under attorney-client and attorney work product privileges. If you receive this electronic transmission in error, please notify us immediately by telephone (410.879.2222) and delete this message without making a copy.”
The City Manager, by e-mail (“E-mail 2”), forwarded the message in E-mail 1 to the Council members who were named defendants in the above referenced litigation and for whom the information contained in E-mail 1 was relevant. In doing so the City Manager created an e-mail message “thread” in which both E-mail 1 and E-mail 2 were shown to the recipients of E-mail 2.”
Did you catch all that? Basically, a city attorney sent an update on the lawsuit to city manager Doug Miller, who in turn forwarded it to all the defendants in the litigation – the mayor and city council.
After those emails circulated among the mayor, city council, city manager and city attorney, Yensan fired off a third email to everyone in the email chain with the following text:
“The press release will cite Fred, Mike and me as bad guys and point out that Ron and Ruth tried to do the “right thing”. I strongly suggest that we get an an (sic) release together ASAP that points ut (sic) the actual facts, not the ravings of a demented old woman “
It’s at that point that Elliott allegedly provided Yensan’s email, although still part of the privileged internal email circle, to someone not authorized to receive the information contained in the first email in the chain.
The Ethics Commission, after review of the council minutes and the tape recording of the meeting, determined that Yensan’s email had been provided to a private citizen who had been a plaintiff in the litigation referenced in the first email. Yensan later apologized for the contents of his email when the matter was discussed during a city council meeting.
The Ethics Commission found that, whether intentional or not, Elliott provided the thread of the emails to an outside party who was not an intended recipient of the first email, which contained confidential information relating to ongoing litigation.
Yensan contends that the release of the email thread by Elliott was done for political reasons, which the Ethics Commission took into consideration:
“Whether the transmission of the E-mail was for political reasons or other reasons, it appears that the release of E-mail 3, along with the other two e-mail messages, was not a benign act and was done for a reason which was for the benefit of others.”
The commission found Elliott violated the provisions of the Aberdeen Code, Section 9-3 A (10) by disclosing confidential information contained in the first email message when she divulged the contents of all three emails to a person not entitled to receive the information contained in the original email.
The commission determined that the disclosure of the thread of emails by Elliott was an improper disclosure of confidential information and also determined that nature of the disclosure was such that it was made for the benefit others.
In its findings, the Aberdeen Ethics Commission recommended the following disciplinary action against Elliott:
“The Commission, as a disciplinary action, directs the Director of Human Resources of the City to place this decision in the Respondent’s personnel file as a warning and as a reprimand.”
The Aberdeen Ethics Commission is comprised of Maria Fothergill, Eugene Chandler, Marian DeRosset, Joyce Roberts and Jessie J. Shanks.
“There was never a intentional violation of the Aberdeen Code. A citizen asked me for a copy of the E-mail she had heard about citing ‘demented old woman.’ I provided a copy,” Elliott wrote in an email.
“The Confidentiality statement happened to be on a separate page and I didn’t see it. The case in question had been dismissed by the judge sometime before I provided a copy to a concerned citizen who resented the remark ‘demented old woman’,” she continued.
“If I had reported to the Ethics Commission every time I felt some from the previous administration violated our City Charter we would have had to increase our legal fees 3 fold. I did not benefit from releasing this information and as far as I know, no one else did, except the person/persons who resented being referred to as ‘demented old women’ and came to a public meeting to express their displeasure.
I accept the findings of the Ethics Commission and I shall be more observant in the future. This is just another lesson in life and especially in politics. As you well know, ‘Politics is like mixing sausage, it’s not pretty.’
I didn’t ‘go along to just get along’ and this is the only way a few council members could vent their frustrations on the failed annexation, they so desperately wanted.
As long as I am in office I will continue to listen to the people and make my decisions as I feel they would want. Many good people in office are beat down by those who would gain personally. I am not obligated to anyone but the voters, I said that in 1982 and I have not changed,” Elliott wrote.
To view the entire Ethics Commission report in PDF version, click here to download.