Back in May I wrote a story about Department of Public Instruction spokesman Dale Wetzel mocking critics of Common Core policy in emails he failed to turn over to an open records request.
Wetzel had been using an anonymous Gmail address – firstname.lastname@example.org – for disseminate information critical of anti-Common Core activist Duke Pesta who was speaking in North Dakota communities at the time (Wetzel says he assumed those receiving his emails knew they were from him). When I became aware of the use of that email address I put in an open records request for all emails sent from the account.
I received a few, but what I didn’t receive were several sent by Wetzel to the Jay Thomas Show on WDAY AM970 in Fargo mocking and belittling Common Core critics appearing on that show. When Thomas made me aware of the emails he received and I didn’t as a part of my request, I filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office.
Earlier this week Assistant Attorney General Sandra Voller, who is handling my complaint, forwarded me a response from Wetzel to my complaint asking me if I still wanted to proceed. I told her I did, and noticed some inaccuracies in Wetzel’s response (the entirety of which you can read below).
First, Wetzel claims that I did not respond to a May 22nd email offering to give me access to the Gmail account to “peruse at my leisure.” This is understandable because, at the time Wetzel wrote his response to Voller, I hadn’t yet responded to his email. I declined as I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to have log-in access to the Gmail account, lest I be accused of deleting emails or sending new ones. I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to provide the public access to records.
Second, Wetzel says he “did not send Port copies of emails from the account that I sent to a Fargo radio talk show, ‘The Jay Thomas Show,” because “Port is a guest host of the show, has access to the show’s emails, and was scheduled to host the show on May 9, the day after he made his original request.” I actually don’t, and never have, had access to WDAY’s emails. I’ve never hosted the Jay Thomas Show from the WDAY studios (I host from my home studio in Minot). When I solicit email responses from the audience on air, I always refer to my SAB account specifically because I can’t read emails sent to WDAY. It might be understandable that Wetzel would think that I have access to emails sent to a radio program I guest host frequently, but why would he assume that I saw those emails which were sent when Thomas was hosting the show? Why wouldn’t he ask me if I had access to those emails or if I had seen them?
I didn’t ask Wetzel about emails sent to WDAY, because I thought my request for all emails from the last 30 days would mean just that: All emails from the last 30 days, even those Wetzel might assume I had gotten.
In my response to Voller, I said that I wanted to continue with my complaint because the motivation for my original request was a desire to analyze how a public official was comporting himself while executing his official duties. Obviously, Wetzel’s emails to WDAY were pertinent – indeed, crucial – to that analysis. Whatever Wetzel’s motivations for failing to turn over those emails – whether we believe his explanation of a bad assumption, or that he desired to keep hidden emails that were less than flattering – they weren’t turned over when requested. It’s through chance that I received them at all.
That’s a violation of the state’s open records laws worthy of documentation. I expect the Attorney General’s office to find in my favor.