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Cacioppo unhappy with school e-mail release

Scott N. Miller

Local publisher Michael Cacioppo still hasn’t found what he’s looking for at the school district.

While Eagle County School District officials continue to insist they’re hiding nothing, Cacioppo remains convinced a load of several thousand recovered e-mails and fragments will reveal evidence of a district conspiracy to organize a boycott of “Speakout!,” his political newspaper, and its advertisers.

After winning a court case giving him access to recovered e-mail files, an initial release last week of six disputed messages left Cacioppo unsatisfied, since those messages seem to support the district’s position. Cacioppo this week made another request to see still more electronic communications from 2002.



The district provided another 53 files and fragments that came up during a keyword search for “Cacioppo,” “Speakout,” “adverti” (shortened to account for spelling errors) and “flier.” A look at those message fragments revealed mostly typographic gobbledygook and a babble of machine-language characters, with occasional matching words sprinkled among the junk.

There were no matches for the word “boycott,” only two for “Cacioppo,” just one for “Speakout” and 37 matches for “adverti,” none of which had anything to with Cacioppo. None of the fragments revealed any evidence of any sort of organized boycott efforts.



“They provided a sanitized group of fragments,” Cacioppo said.

District Technology Director Rick Spitzer had a different explanation: “There are no documents to support his allegations.”

Cacioppo is now seeking access to several thousand other fragments, a subject that may end up in court again, since he and district officials have widely different opinions of just how “public” many of the remaining file fragments might be.



Boycott backlash

The dispute stems from an incident in March 2002, in which a flyer encouraging a boycott of Speakout! was put into the district’s inter-office mail system and sent from the administration office in Eagle to all the district’s schools. That flier was a response to a Cacioppo lawsuit over the legality of a successful 2001 school ballot issue that sought a tax increase in order to raise pay for district employees. That case is now awaiting a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court.

After the fliers went out, former superintendent Mel Pruesser sent an e-mail to all district administrators on March 19, 2002, instructing them to destroy any copies of the flier they might find. The message also stated that “… disciplinary action will be taken if an employee is involved in this action.” The district has been unable to determine who produced or distributed the flier.

Cacioppo views the flier as evidence of a conspiracy to run his newspaper out of business because of his earlier lawsuit. District officials have continued to insist there was no conspiracy and that administrators acted quickly to stop the spread of the fliers.

Following the flier incident, Cacioppo demanded to see district e-mail records of anything pertaining to him. That demand eventually led the school district to purchase software and hire a consultant to recover files. That effort cost the district more than $1,700. The district then attempted to recover that cost from Cacioppo before he could view the results of the search. He took the matter to court, and, on March 31, District Judge Richard Hart ruled Cacioppo could see the e-mails without charge.

Cacioppo’s request to see virtually all the rest of the nearly 9,000 files and fragments recovered ultimately comes down to different definitions of what a “public record” is.

“The definition (Cacioppo) places on what’s a public record is 180 degrees from our interpretation,” Spitzer said.

Cacioppo agreed.

What’s public?

The primary difference is the two sides’ interpretation of state law.

Cacioppo asserts that virtually everything produced by a government agency is public, with the exception of medical records, personnel files, student records and matters of attorney-client privilege. As such, the district must maintain those records for at least 180 days.

Spitzer said the district has a narrower definition of what is and isn’t a public record. “Anything pertaining to the district’s legally defined functions, its policies and financial records, and records of public meetings is public,” Spitzer said. “However, state law makes exceptions.”

Looking at state statute, the exceptions can be “work product” – that is, the process leading up to drafting policies and procedures. State law also makes an exception for correspondence, “Without a demonstrable connection to the exercise of functions required or authorized by law or administrative rule…”

Will the matter end up in court again? It’s hard to tell. Cacioppo and Adele Reester, the district’s attorney in the case, this week agreed to a 30-day delay in further action.

“I’ve indicated my willingness to seek a solution based on their willingness to work with me,” Cacioppo said.


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