College is demanding return of files obtained through Freedom of Information Act

Nicole D. Perez, Alice Echo-News Journal

A temporary restraining order has been issued by the 36th District Court against Alice Echo-News Journal reporter Christopher Maher on behalf of Coastal Bend College and two of its employees.

An attorney representing CBC, Glynis Holm Strause and Susan Nelson Smedley is demanding the return of copies of DVDs the newspaper obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that contain district files and emails.

A hearing on the temporary injunction has been set for 2:30 p.m. July 9 in Sinton.

A former employee of Coastal Bend College filed a court document in Jim Wells County raising allegations that officials with the college destroyed records in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

Alice attorney Giancarlo Nisimblat filed the document in the 79th District Court on April 30, on behalf of Anthony Sanders.

The document filed is entitled "Application for appointment of receiver and tender of property to the registry of the court."

That application outlines allegations by Sanders, a former computer network supervisor for the college, that officials with the college shredded paper documents and deleted email records to keep them from being released to the public.

According to the application, on Feb. 9, Sanders was approached by Director of Personnel for the college Kathlyn Patton, who asked Sanders to back up all emails on her computer.

Patton told Sanders the reason for the backup was that "I know they are starting to ask for emails," the application stated.

Sanders then made two backups of the information, giving one copy to Patton and keeping the other, according to the court document.

The Alice Echo-News Journal filed a request for copies of the DVDs with the District Clerk's office on May 16 and later received those copies.

The temporary restraining order, which was also filed against Sanders, Nisimblat, Jose M.H. Briceno, Robert Hilliard, Rev. John Fox, Oiram Salinas, Fred McCutchon and Scott Reese Willey, contends the defendants "wrongfully possess" the copies, and the plaintiffs will suffer "permanent and irreperable damages as a result of the disclosure of highly confidential, personal and privileged information."

The order says defendants have continued to refuse to return all the information.

The Alice Echo-News Journal received a faxed memo (and later a certified letter) from CBC attorney Phillip A. McKinney dated June 21 requesting the DVDs be returned, but no reply was made nor was there any discussion between representatives of the newspaper and McKinney.

Judge Michael Welborn has ordered the defendants to not release the information on the DVDs to anyone but McKinney and asks that the DVDs be immediately returned.

The judge further ordered the defendants to identify any and all persons or entities (by name, address and telephone number) with whom the defendants have shared the information. CBC claims some of the information in the files is protected by attorney-client privelege.

In the McKinney's application for the temporary restraining order, he contends CBC could be defending itself against several Equal Employment Opportunity claims by current and former employees. Briceno is representing one such employee, as is Salinas. Nisimblat represents Sanders. McCutchon and Hilliard also represent current or former employees of the college.

McKinney is also seeking damages from the defendants in a sum in excess of the minimum jurisdictional limits of the court, with interest before and after judgment as allowed by law and attorney's fees, according to the petition.