The retired judge assigned to review a utility regulator’s text messages found that none of them should be released to the public.
The move came after nearly a year of back and forth with a watchdog group, which sought to make public text messages that Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump sent and received in the lead up to the 2014 elections.
The Checks and Balances Project, funded in part by solar company SolarCity, filed a lawsuit in October to force the Corporation Commission to turn over the texts. Checks and Balances Project did receive a log of texts, which showed Stump had communicated with utility executives, commission candidates and the head of a dark money group.
Maricopa County Superior Court judge Randall Warner assigned David Cole, a retired judge, to review text messages sent between July 12, 2013, and March 11, 2015, to and from 18 people Stump was texting.
Cole decided Wednesday that none of the texts during that time period were subject to the public records law.
Warner directed Cole to see if any of the texts had a “substantial nexus” to government work, weren’t privileged communication according to state law, and were responsive to Checks and Balances Project’s records request.
Cole didn’t find any that met the criteria.
Stump also drew fire from Checks and Balances Project last year when it was revealed that he threw away the phone he was using when he sent many of the texts in question because it was “literally crumbling.”
But a new phone was turned over to the Attorney General’s office, which retrieved metadata and found thousands of texts.
Stump criticized Checks and Balances Project’s tactics and said it’s time for the group to move on and let the commissioners get to work.
“I think Checks and Balances’ behavior all along has shown the need for greater mental health funding in the United States. They have worked tirelessly to concoct conspiracy theories about me, about my fellow commissioners,” Stump told the Arizona Capitol Times.
“They need to pack up, they need to admit failure and they need to stop wasting taxpayer money. This has been an expensive, politically motivated witch hunt … and they’ve come up empty,” Stump said.
Throughout the process of retrieving texts, Checks and Balances Project offered up an investigator who could search Stump’s phone to see if any texts were left. But, Stump said, if the commission had allowed that to happen, his personal messages could have been released.
Checks and Balances Project previously published an unredacted log of the text messages online, which included Stump’s mother’s phone number and those of his friends, a fact that he says was the worst part of the process with the group.
“I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy. I’m a public figure and I expect this. But my friends didn’t sign up for this. My mother didn’t sign up for this,” Stump said.
The Corporation Commission’s legal staffers’ time spent responding to public records requests in the past year amounts to more than $200,000, according to commission spokesman Angie Holdsworth. The commission also spent more than $50,000 on outside counsel David Cantelme to handle Checks and Balances Project’s request specifically.
Holdsworth said the internal costs for attorneys and paralegals at the commission runs about $220,000 for 5,670 hours of work in the legal division, which doesn’t include time spent by the commissioners’ offices to comply with records requests.
Holdsworth said there’s a feeling of “vindication” at the agency after Cole’s report.
“This shows we did not do anything against the state law,” Holdsworth said.
Cole’s report, which was two paragraphs long and didn’t include details on how exactly the records weren’t public, doesn’t address major questions, Checks and Balances Project wrote in a blog post last night.
The report doesn’t say how Cole reviewed the texts or how many of them he reviewed, Checks and Balances wrote. The group is also waiting on a letter from the AG’s office about what “technical methods” were used to extract texts from Stump’s phone.
“Bob Stump really wants the questions about his conduct to go away. Unfortunately for him, Judge Cole raised more questions than he answered. While we will leave the overstatements to Bob Stump, we remain fully committed to enforcing the public’s right to public records,” Checks and Balances Project director Scott Peterson told the Arizona Capitol Times.
The group’s attorney, Dan Barr, will be following up to get more detail and clarity on what Cole found, Peterson said.
“We need questions answered before we go any farther,” he said.