Are California Rail Authorities Looking to Cover Their Tracks with Email Purge?

It’s almost as though California’s high-speed rail officials are actively trying to piss people off at this point.

Kathy Hamilton of the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail, a group opposing the proposed $68 billion train line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco (eventually!), had requested copies of e-mails between the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) staff and some experts who had criticized the project's financial projections. According to California Watch, the CHSRA rejected Hamilton’s request, explaining they had implemented a new policy purging e-mails after 90 days.

The CHSRA quietly filed paperwork in February with the state for this new policy. Thomas Fellenz, chief counsel and acting CEO for the CHSRA (after the previous CEO quit in January) gave California Watch the perfectly reasonable explanation that they implemented the policy because they realized they didn’t currently have any e-mail retention policy at all. There’s nothing to be suspicious about when an agency under intense scrutiny for its unrealistic ridership and operational cost projections, currently under investigation by Congress and the Government Accountability Office and facing lawsuits from train opponents suddenly decides it’s time to purge all these silly old emails. It’s just a process!

Fellenz says rail authority staff will retain documents they think they may need for legal or business reasons and dump the rest.

Fortunately they haven’t actually purged anything just yet under this new policy. California Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Vista, head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is investigating the project's use of federal funds and has ordered the CHSRA to keep its last two years of documents. The agency has promised to comply. They have also reversed their response to Hamilton and will be providing her the e-mails she requested.

But some important information may have already been lost, policy or not, California Watch discovered:

David Schonbrunn, a plaintiff in an environmentalist lawsuit that challenged the high-speed rail project’s proposed route over the Pacheco Pass in Santa Clara County, said he suspects the rail authority routinely destroys e-mails that would provide useful insights into its decisionmaking.

Schonbrunn said part of the lawsuit turned on whether the rail authority had altered a computerized “travel mode demand model” that had been used to plot the best route to link the Bay Area with the Central Valley. The plaintiffs believed the model had been tweaked to make the Pacheco Pass route seem more attractive than an alternative route over the Altamont Pass, he said. During pretrial investigation, the plaintiffs found evidence that the model had indeed been changed, said Schonbrunn, a paralegal who worked on the case.

“But because the e-mail was destroyed, we were unable to get somebody giving the instructions for that to be done,” he said.

Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal calls the train “California’s Kafka Express” (subscription required) while flogging Gov. Jerry Brown over his insistence on keeping the project going even as the state’s gargantuan budget deficit grows.

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  • creech||

    Ah, some things never change. I was just reading about the Pennsylvania canal and railroad built by the Commonwealth of Penna. in response to the opening of the Erie Canal across New York. In 1826, the legislature appropriated $300,000 for the estimated cost of the project.
    Eight years later, when finally completed, it had cost $12,000,000
    (in a time when Pa's tax revenues were about $1million per year). Graft and corruption were rampant and helped to bring down Democratic control of the state government.

  • GILMORE||

    the CHSRA rejected Hamilton’s request, explaining they had implemented a new policy purging e-mails after 90 days.

    This sort of thing is becoming increasingly common as an effort to protect organizations from potential future litigation... a lawyer I know pointed out to me that many companies may simply institute the "policy", without actually needing to destroy past emails. They can refuse requests or hinder discovery because "they have a policy", and according to that policy, the documentation is *supposed* to be destroyed, ergo, it doesn't exist in theory, ergo we can't be compelled to provide it for you.

  • Amakudari||

    This sounds exactly like what's going on here.

    Odds are, they could find some older emails that had been quoted in newer ones, an employee who stored emails to his hard drive, etc.

  • T||

    Strangely, I just had this conversation 15 minutes ago. My projects have a timescale of 2-4 years. My IT department has a retention policy of 90 days. They start deleting shit off the server after 90 days. So we all have personal folders on our hard drives to keep our project emails. One of my n00b engineers just asked what he was supposed to do with old emails. IT thinks we should PDF and archive the emails we need to keep.

    Fuck that. I'll take the audit hit. I need the paper trail, because 2 years from now when somebody at BP or Shell says "why did you do that? That's not what we agreed on!" I'll have the email where they agreed to it.

  • fried wylie||

    as God-Emperor, I would fire whoever set that policy, and change 90days to "90 days after completion date (original or revised) of the project"

    It's email. It doesn't take an exorbitant quantity of resources to hold onto that shit. Keep the email server at a datacenter if managing data for more than 90 days is just too strenuous for your IT guys. Then pare down to one IT guy since the rest are probably a waste of money anyway.

    Wylie for God-Emperor: because, Fuck The Bullshit, that's what.

  • Amakudari||

    I will accept your reign.

    However, the problem is that most people don't end up or last long in corporate IT for thinking logically about IT.

  • Amakudari||

    The most ridiculous part is that the space for emails isn't that precious. A GB of storage costs, what, 10 cents?

  • daveInAustin||

    $68 billion estimated for the rail line (when is the last time we ever saw a project like that come within 100% of the budget. The market cap of all the airlines in the world is less than that. In the US, it's less than $20 billion. They estimate 100 million passengers on this train, but the airlines in the whole country carry around 800 million per year.

  • Rich||

    "But because the e-mail was destroyed, we were unable to get somebody giving the instructions for that to be done," he said.

    "Once something's on the Internet, it's there forever." I confused.

  • fried wylie||

    Most email servers don't technically count as "part of the internet", despite sending their traffic over it.

    Your car travels on highways, but your iPod/CD collection aren't a part of the highway system.

  • D.D. Driver||

    Cover their "tracks."

    I see what you did there.

  • robc||

    Jail people for contempt of court until missing emails turned over (after it goes thru the legal process, of course). Backups will be found shortly thereafter.

  • Rob||

    Considering there is already a federal level investigation, the CHSRA is way beyond the trigger point requiring they preserve files (paper or electronic) potentially relevant to the case. As soon as the CHSRA believed there could be an investigation or lawsuit - see "Legal Hold" and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 16, 26, 33, 34, 37 and 45. The duty to preserve information would supersede any retention policies set by the CHSRA.

  • Agammamon||

    There's nothing surprising about this - given liberal discovery rules and the deference the judiciary give to law enforcement regarding subpoenas and illegal searches, its surprising that any organization doesn't purge email as fast as it can afford to.

  • Sevo||

    Their motives don't surprise me at all; it is a government agency handing out millions of dollars and I'm sure they would rather not have anyone look at what and why they did so.
    HOWEVER:
    It *is* a government agency and those are my damn dollars! Haul 'em into court, NOW!

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