UPDATE: San Jose’s Rules and Open Government Committee on a 4-0 vote approved San Jose Inside’s appeal to release Asst. Chief Eddie Garcia’s emails, after a review for redactions is completed.
The same day San Jose Police Chief Larry Esquivel announced he will retire at the beginning of next year, the city tabbed Eddie Garcia as next in line. It wasn't much of a surprise, as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has been grooming the assistant chief for the job, despite several instances of unprofessional behavior over the last year.
In January, San Jose Inside published a report that showed the department’s chief and top command staff—especially Garcia—routinely used their city email accounts to laugh behind their civilian bosses’ backs, vent frustration and scoff at gift policies they violated. The chief and his top deputies also partook in a little gallows humor at the expense of an injured crime victim who doubled as a drug-peddling idiot.
Now the city is attempting to block the release of hundreds of additional emails Garcia sent and received using his city email account.
A week after Esquivel said he would retire in January and City Manager Norberto Dueñas announced he would appoint Garcia to interim chief, San Jose Inside requested Garcia emails that were left out of an initial request.
A day later, July 30, the department denied the request, arguing that emails Garcia sent using his city email account, even when on city time, do not relate in any way “to the conduct of the public’s business.”
The department added, “Moreover, even if one were to assume that the e-mails constituted public records, these personal e-mails would be exempt from public disclosure under Government Code Section 6255 because the public interest served by not disclosing the personal e-mails clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of these records since the records do not contain any information relating to the conduct of the public’s business.”
San Jose Inside has appealed this interpretation of the law, and the matter will go before the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee on Wednesday. The decision that body makes this week could be a bellwether of how committed the Liccardo administration is to continuing predecessor Mayor Chuck Reed’s initiatives on sunshine and transparency.
In a memo recommending San Jose Inside’s appeal be denied, communications director David Vossbrink reiterates SJPD’s arguments. But past emails, as well as Vossbrink’s own memo, show the city has been inconsistent in how it interprets rules on public records.
San Jose Inside argued in its appeal that “these emails are related to the conduct of the public's business, because they were sent and received using public resources (computers, internet connections, servers, email systems, etc.) and they were sent and received while Asst. Chief Garcia was being paid to conduct public business.
“All of these emails relate to the public interest because it educates citizens and elected officials about the way a top manager of the city uses his time when he is on the clock. The cost and efficiency of police services has been the preeminent issue in the city of San Jose of the past decade. It has been the subject of numerous council meetings, study session and elections; therefore, it is a matter of widespread interest to the citizens of San Jose. No issue is more important than public safety.”
To reinforce this point, San Jose Inside is today releasing several emails that were not included in a previous report, which show that city’s definition of “personal” emails has changed when it suits its purposes.
The delineation between work and personal emails gets a little fuzzy when a council member doubles as a mayoral candidate.
A little more than two months before the November 2014 election, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for Sam Liccardo. In addition to representing downtown’s District 3 as a councilman, he was also in a dead heat for the mayor’s race with Dave Cortese, who had substantial support from public safety unions.
On the morning of Aug. 29, 2014, Liccardo sent an email asking Garcia if they could talk later that day because he was “getting pressed” by the Vietnamese media for an explanation on why so few officers could speak the language. Liccardo’s ability to woo Vietnamese voters turned out to be one of the key reasons he was able to edge Cortese in the runoff election.
“I’m getting pressed by one outlet now, and I'd like to be able to say truthfully that we're doing something about it,” Liccardo wrote.
Considering that Garcia did not report to Liccardo, any assistance he would have provided to the council member/mayoral candidate could be seen as a political favor—one that might be remembered when Esquivel, a 30-year veteran of the force, would retire.
This email, however, was classified as city business in response to San Jose Inside’s prior records request. It's also worth noting that Liccardo used his personal Gmail account, which raises a whole other discussion about transparency and how the current mayor and council conduct city business.
The maturity exhibited by Garcia is one of the biggest concerns sources have had about him leading SJPD. In previously published emails, he wrote things like:
- “Geeeezus!!!! Can he let us work thru this!!!!”
- “Bro….. I’m kinda speechless. They are terrible.”
- “We're going to reprimand staff no less than weekly, for something that isn't occurring????!!!!!! Terrible way to lead..”
All of these were in reference to the city manager’s office, which is the department Garcia would have to report to as chief.
Bro culture has not been limited to Garcia, though. It also apparently extends to one of the San Jose Police Department’s best-trained media pets.
On April 10 of last year, NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo sent a message to Garcia with the innocuous subject line “email.” The message, however, is laden with ethical breaches, as Trujillo not only invites the assistant police chief, a.k.a. his “bro,” to come over to his “pad” for beers, but also notes that Garcia has “been silent” on him lately, which is basically code for not feeding him good information.
Perhaps in an effort to jumpstart the relationship, Trujillo—in addition to plying Garcia with free beers—sells out an insider tip from a lower-level officer.
Here is the unedited message in full:
Been silent on me lately. Come over for some beers next Satruday at my pad.
FYI, got this message but I know its more venting than anything. But felt I should pass it along.
So a developing story in the officers ranks. Two SJPD officers received DUI awards for outstanding service one got 50+ and one got 30+ DUIs .... Several hundred officers and deputies were there to congratulate them. The story is no command staff was there to acknowledge the SJPD officers. With morale lower then the bottom of a rock, this does not sit well. The command staff obviously set a message that DUI arrest are just not important. Or maybe they are saying the officers are not important.
The city and SJPD’s biggest hesitation in releasing more of Garcia’s emails most likely doesn’t have anything to do with leaking information to reporters, or vice versa. It could be he’s spending his too many work hours thinking about high school glory days.
In an email, which goes back to the summer of 2013, Garcia fired off a 699-word defense of the Cambrian Valley youth football league. The email is mostly just a dad-coach thumping his chest, preaching football platitudes and arguing that kids should be able to play in whatever league they want. But it’s notable that Garcia mentioned he is a police officer in an email to two men who run another league, and he decided to use his work email, which includes an electronic signature that notes he is the acting assistant chief of police. That could be construed as a little intimidating to a youth sports adversary.
On two different days in October of last year, Garcia also sent an email to Police Chief Larry Esquivel and Lt. Michael Sullivan, telling both of them to check out a prep football highlight. In the video, Garcia’s son scores a nice 31-yard touchdown run. Running a sweep left, he spins back inside to avoid some arm tackles before sprinting up the middle of the field and barreling over the goal line. It’s a nice play, but somehow these emails were also considered city business in SJI’s last request for records.
What is perhaps the biggest hole in the city’s reasoning for denying a chance to review Garcia’s emails—messages that will show not only the character of the next chief but also how he spends his work days—is that the department didn’t attempt to block the records from becoming public until just recently.
The original request for Garcia’s emails was made by a non-journalist. San Jose Inside was alerted to this request and asked to have access to the same emails that were provided. In an email from SJPD’s records manager Kara Capaldo, it was noted that the person requesting records did not want personal emails, which is why they weren't provided.
This person told San Jose Inside in January that she “was also told there were over 400 personal emails to or from Chief Garcia, most relating to his coaching football. Using City email for anything other than City business is also a violation of city policy. I did not want to pay for those emails so do not have copies of them.”
This is wholly different than what the city is now saying—that the records were not provided because they were exempt due to government codes. It appears SJPD and city officials, knowing its next chief spends time on the clock writing emails about his sons’ football teams, is simply trying to move the goalpost.