Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer says he “never reviewed” a state policy that he has cited as justification for destroying government emails.
In a recent deposition, Palmer also contradicted his earlier claim that it was practice in his office to print emails, file the hard copies and then delete the electronic versions. Under oath, he said his office has no such policy and he never told his employees to handle emails that way.
He also testified that he released cellphone records only after redacting personal calls, including calls to people associated with a militia.
Palmer’s disclosures came under questioning by a lawyer for The Oregonian as part of a lawsuit seeking public records. In May, The Oregonian/OregonLive sued Palmer and his office after he ignored or declined several requests for records dating to February. That included police reports, cellphone records, emails, his calendar and records of handgun licenses. Oregon law generally makes such material open to the public.
Palmer acknowledged in subsequent court filings that he had no electronic versions of emails to turn over because he routinely deleted them from his primary account. He has yet to produce any hard copies of emails.
Emails have become a crucial resource for the public and the press to monitor the conduct of public officials such as Palmer. They can document how government decisions are made and who is influencing public officials.
During the deposition in late September, the sheriff asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 51 times when questioned about his email practices.
Palmer already is under criminal investigation for an allegation that in 2012 he destroyed an electronic copy of a police report.
In the deposition, Palmer said:
• He considered calls to or from those associated with the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to be “personal” so they didn’t have to be disclosed to the public.
• Records of his government-issued cellphone show “many” personal phone calls — a potential violation of state ethics law prohibiting personal use of government equipment.
• He frequently “confided” in a man recently convicted in Grant County of the theft of fire equipment. Palmer had investigated and cleared his friend, Roy R. Peterson of Monument. The Oregon State Police did a separate investigation, and a jury found Peterson guilty in August.
• A flooring contractor he considered a “close friend” asked to become a special deputy so he could process concealed handgun licenses in the Portland area. Palmer said he didn’t learn until four years later that the man was associated with the Oregon Firearms Federation, a gun rights organization.
Palmer, 54, gained national attention for his sympathy with occupiers who took over the wildlife refuge in January. His conduct prompted John Day city officials and Grant County residents to file 11 complaints questioning his fitness for office. The state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training said it will conduct an administrative inquiry once the state criminal investigation of Palmer is complete.
The Oregonian/OregonLive sought Palmer’s email records, including during the period of the occupation, but he said there were no emails in the private email account he uses for most of his government work. Through his attorneys, he provided a state document called “E-mail Policy Manual for Local Government” as his legal authority.
His attorneys wrote in court filings that the sheriff’s office “practice regarding staff and officer emails” to maintain only hard copies followed requirements in the manual.
But handed the manual during the deposition, Palmer testified, “I have never reviewed this document prior to today.”
He said his office had no policy on how to retain or print emails. Asked if employees had been instructed when to delete emails, Palmer replied, “I don’t believe so. I’ve never had a discussion with anybody to that effect.”
Sally DeFord, a civil deputy who handles administrative functions in Palmer’s office, testified that she knew of no office email policy and “nothing” had been communicated to her about keeping emails. She said that Palmer hadn’t told her when she could delete emails.
The deposition zeroed in on the evening when refuge occupier Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed by state troopers as he and other occupiers traveled off the bird sanctuary and headed to John Day. Palmer released records from his personal cellphone that included a mix of personal and work calls. He redacted the telephone numbers and length of calls for those he considered personal.
The evening of Jan. 26, Palmer was in uniform at a community center in John Day, ready to speak at a gathering that featured Ammon Bundy, the leader of the refuge occupation. He drove to an Oregon State Police roadblock in the south end of Grant County after he heard about Finicum’s shooting but returned after a short time.
The records for Jan. 26 after the shooting showed that Palmer used his personal cellphone to make or receive 12 calls that evening. He classified 10 of them as personal. He said that in general he would consider calls to anyone associated with the occupation to be personal.
He said he would have classified as personal any call with Brooke Agresta, 36, a friend who has described herself as the intelligence officer for an Idaho militia group. She said in Facebook postings that she was the one who notified Palmer of Finicum’s shooting and kept him posted by phone through the evening. Palmer didn’t say whether he had redacted Agresta’s number from his personal cellphone records. But her number doesn’t appear on the records for a second, government-issued phone that he provided without redaction.
Palmer was asked whether he learned of the shooting in his role as sheriff.
“It’s kind of a gray area,” Palmer said. “I don’t know whether to say yes or no.”
Palmer also struggled to explain phone records showing repeated calls on his government cellphone to Peterson, his friend convicted recently for stealing fire trucks. Records Palmer provided for his personal cellphone also showed calls to Monument but with the telephone number redacted. He said those were to Peterson, too.
The sheriff said he had known Peterson and his family for years, once lived two doors from Peterson, and the two once were firefighters with a local department. He said some phone calls in the records were personal and some were work. He deputized Peterson in March for rescue missions and radio work while he was awaiting trial on the theft charges.
“I confide in him quite a bit of stuff that’s going on,” Palmer said.
He investigated Peterson in 2013 when a rural fire district complained that Peterson wouldn’t turn over fire engines and other equipment. Palmer closed the case, concluding it was a civil matter. State police subsequently took up the investigation. Peterson was sentenced recently to 60 days in jail.
Under questioning about his government-issued cellphone, Palmer testified “there’s lots of personal calls.”
State ethics law prohibits public officials from making personal use of government property. The Oregon Government Ethics Commission in a staff opinion said that a public official can use a government-issued phone “for personal business on a brief and infrequent basis (2 to 3 times per month)” without violating the law.
In 2010, Palmer deputized Salvatore D. Casuccio, 49, of Gresham, so he could process concealed handgun licenses for out-of-state applicants. State law authorizes sheriffs to issue licenses to residents of their county or to residents of neighboring states.
The sheriff has faced local criticism for deputizing untrained civilians. Grant County records show he has appointed 65 volunteer deputies since 2010. He has said he has no applications or other records documenting the training or qualifications of the deputies.
Palmer described Casuccio as a close friend who approached him about becoming a special deputy.
“I think he got ahold of me and kind of threw the idea at me,” Palmer said.
He said he had “no files” regarding Casuccio. He said Casuccio already was trained in fingerprinting and he gave only verbal instructions about duties to Casuccio.
He said he learned about four years after he deputized Casuccio that he was affiliated with the Oregon Firearms Federation.
“Somebody told me that he has something to do with the membership” of the federation, he said.
Casuccio didn’t respond to telephone messages. The Oregon Firearms Federation didn’t respond to questions about why Casuccio’s affiliation wasn’t disclosed to Palmer. The organization instead asked for a transcript of Palmer’s testimony.
The federation’s political action committee earlier this year gave $5,000 to Palmer’s legal defense fund — his largest contribution.
Watch the full, unedited deposition videos at OregonLive.com.