State emails searched for terms such as ‘tea party,’ ‘hicks’

Staff writerJuly 10, 2013 

In a move inspired by the IRS’ scrutiny of the tea party and other nonprofit groups, the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation has filed records requests with four Washington state agencies asking for employee emails and other records containing certain words, including “tea party,” “Catholic,” “Mormon” and “redneck.”

The requests were filed in May. Representatives of the libertarian-style think tank say they are looking for evidence of bias toward the public and regulated organizations.

“We tried to come up with terms that we thought would be logical to be used in correspondence about possibly targeted groups,’’ Glen Morgan, property-rights director for the nonprofit organization, which has a hard-right reputation for its battles over land-use limits in environmentally sensitive zones and its perennial criticism of government regulations and spending.

The Freedom Foundation was not caught up in the IRS tax controversy, but its state-agency project “was an outgrowth of that,” Morgan said.

“People complain about bias all the time — it doesn’t always mean it’s true,” he said. “People on both ends of the political spectrum complain about it.”

The search is for all documents created since January 2010. The search terms also include: gun nut, NRA, Freedom Foundation, libertarian, conservative, Catholic, Christian, right wing, far right, racist, teabagger and hicks.

Officials at the affected agencies — Ecology, Revenue, Puget Sound Partnership and Labor & Industries — have been working with the think tank to narrow its requests. None could say how many emails might be reviewed.

Puget Sound Partnership, an agency of 42 employees, has already provided some documents. Ecology’s first batch of responsive emails from its 1,500 employees will be handed over July 18, according to emails it sent The Freedom Foundation. Revenue plans to disclose its first installment of documents from more than 1,000 employees by Aug. 30, but it could take a year or more to be fully responsive, a spokeswoman said.

Ecology spokeswoman Sandi Peck said every one of Ecology’s staffers must individually search emails for the 18 terms covering the period from January 2010 to May 15, 2013 – which she said is when the records request was submitted.

“It’s going to take time, but we can’t charge for staff time. This is part of the system’’ of disclosure, Peck said. “We take the public disclosure requests seriously. It’s finding that balance of needing to be complete, having that other work to do, being efficient and producing the records as quickly as possible.’’

Morgan said the records request should not be burdensome given that technology makes it fairly easy to search electronic documents for specific terms.

It is too early to say what the requests will turn up, because most documents have not been turned over yet, he said. Morgan did not give details but indicated there are references in some of the released emails to Catholics and Mormons, which he painted as derogatory.

The Freedom Foundation is the same group that went to court to challenge former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s use of executive privilege to shield records from disclosure. That case is awaiting a decision by the state Supreme Court, but Gov. Jay Inslee vowed as a candidate more than a year ago not to exercise that privilege – and the foundation applauded his willingness earlier this year to release documents Gregoire had shielded.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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