San Diego Councilman Apparently Used Personal Email To Leak Confidential Memo
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Photo by Milan Kovacevic
San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate appears to have used his personal email account to send a confidential city attorney's memo to a consultant for the Soccer City initiative.
The email, obtained via a public records request, was sent to Craig Benedetto of the consulting firm California Strategies on June 16. This was a day after the City Attorney's Office distributed hard copies of the memo to the nine City Council members and the mayor.
The memo discusses potential legal issues with the Soccer City initiative, which seeks to redevelop the former Chargers stadium in Mission Valley into a new soccer stadium, hotels, homes, commercial space and a river park. City Attorney Mara Elliott said after the memo's publication by The San Diego Union-Tribune that its leaker had likely committed a crime and should resign.
Cate admitted two weeks ago that he had leaked the memo, saying he did so to get input from the Soccer City proponents in advance of a City Council vote to approve the initiative outright or put it up to city voters.
In releasing the emails between Cate and Benedetto, Cate's office redacted both of their email addresses in their initial exchange "for the protection of private information." The office did not redact dozens of personal email addresses and phone numbers belonging to city residents who had written the office to share thoughts on Soccer City.
Cate's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the inconsistent redactions, nor would it confirm that the councilman's redacted email address was his personal account. However, the councilman's official email address appears unredacted in a subsequent email chain released in response to the same public record request.
The councilman's two email addresses also contained different "aliases," or identifiers that appear just before the address. The redacted address is preceded by "Chris Cate," while the official city address is preceded by "Cate, Chris."
Chris Cate E-Mails
E-mails between San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate and Soccer City consultant Craig Benedetto show the councilman's e-mail address redacted.
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The email Cate sent to Benedetto was blank, presumably containing only the memo as an attachment. Tony Manolatos, a private communications consultant hired by Cate, said the councilman sent the email following a phone conversation with Benedetto.
Manolatos did not offer an explanation for why Cate apparently used his personal account.
Using personal email accounts for city business does not violate any city laws or policies — but it can make it more difficult for the city to comply with public records requests. Emails sent from official city accounts are stored on a central server that officials can search when responding to records requests. Emails from personal accounts are not searchable in the same way.
The California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that emails and text messages sent by public officials from private devices or accounts are still subject to disclosure under the state's Public Records Act if they deal with government business.
David Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, said the court decision was a win for transparency because it confirmed that government officials could not shield their communications by using personal email accounts. He said there are few circumstances under which a government official had a legitimate reason to use a private email account over a government one.
"I think the best course of action is for government agencies to simply tell its employees you can't use personal email accounts" for official business, he said. "There's some degree of discretion in the individual city employees ... searching through their own emails, and so there are concerns that their searches may not be as comprehensive as the city can do in its own email account."
Snyder added that he saw no reason to redact the email addresses of a city councilman and a private consultant, but not those of constituents.
"If the city is going to redact private email accounts for anybody, it needs to redact private email accounts for everybody," he said.
Public records suggest San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate used his personal email account when sending a confidential memo to the proponents of the Soccer City stadium initiative. The councilman's office redacted Cate's email address but did not redact addresses and phone numbers belonging to dozens of constituents.
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