‘First Selectman Herbst asked me to delete emails ... I did not comply’
The Trumbull director of information technology stated under oath last week that former First Selectman Timothy Herbst directed him to delete government records from the town’s electronic archiving system.
The statement, made during a May 28 hearing before the state Freedom of Information Commission, came in response to a question from Herbst himself, who filed the FOI complaint over what he called the town’s withholding of documents relating to a Planning & Zoning Commission case.
“Has any town official, present or former, ever asked you to delete anything from the Barracuda system,” Herbst asked Bill Chin, the town’s longtime IT director that Herbst himself hired in 2011.
Chin answered, “Yes” and, after a short pause, continued.
“First Selectman Herbst asked me to delete emails before he left office,” Chin said. “I did not do that ... I did not comply.”
Attorney Valicia D. Harmon, who presided over the hearing, followed up by asking Chin to confirm that he had never deleted anything from the archive. Chin repeated that he had not.
“There’s nothing that’s ever been deleted from the system,” he said. “It’s fully logged.”
At that point, Herbst ended the questioning, telling Harmon, “That’s all I have.”
Chin had been called to testify about the town’s archiving system. The archiving system, which is sold under the name Barracuda, stores all emails, Chin said. Town employees can delete emails from their computers or phones, but the Barracuda system retains a permanent record of the communication that only the IT office can access.
Herbst said he was taken aback by Chin’s testimony.
“I’m a lawyer, and I would never tell someone to do that,” he said. “There are laws concerning document retention.”
Email communications must be kept for varying lengths of time, according to the Office of the Public Records administrator. Casual and routine messages can be deleted immediately. Other communications, including budgets and legal opinions, must be maintained permanently. Other communications, including FOI requests and litigation correspondence, have mandatory retention times ranging from months up to 25 years.
Chin later told the Trumbull Times that the request from Herbst came in November 2017, shortly before the election in which Democrat Vicki Tesoro defeated Republican Paul Lavoie.
“He was preparing for the transition, and we had a meeting in his office,” Chin said. “He said we were going to clean things up, and he needed my help.”
Chin recalled that Herbst had said he wanted the archive “bleached,” which is not a term IT personnel generally use.
“IT professionals usually say ‘wipe’ to refer to permanently clearing information,” Chin said. The term “bleached” came into common use during Hillary Clinton’s email controversy when her tech team used the software BleachBit to delete thousands of emails.
Chin said Herbst quoted a state statute, and told him there was no obligation to keep the records, but Chin was uncomfortable with the request. Permanently deleting government records would be a major black mark on his career if it ever came to light, he said.
“It put me in a bad spot. I was trying to retain these records for FOI compliance,” he said. “But he wanted all the emails deleted.”
Herbst, in response, said his concerns were limited to emails that could fall under attorney-client privilege, and other personal items that were not subject to FOI.
“For example, my calendar, which had my doctor’s appointments on it,” he said.
Following the meeting in Herbst’s office, Chin said he gathered the other three members of the IT Department and told them that what Herbst had requested, and that he intended not to comply.
“Then I thought, I’m going to make it easier for them, and I told them I was revoking their access to the archive,” Chin said. “That way, if anyone asked them, they could say that they could not get into the server, and any request would have to go through me.”
Chin said he never directly refused Herbst’s request, but rather avoided the issue by working from the IT Department’s satellite office in the Police Department and skipping a few staff meetings. On Dec. 5, 2017, Herbst’s term expired.
When he learned he would be testifying at the FOI hearing, Chin said he intended to avoid bringing up the topic of Herbst’s emails, but that if asked directly he would testify honestly.
The decision was complicated by Chin’s long friendship with Herbst, who was in Chin’s wedding. Chin had also been there to celebrate Herbst’s graduation from law school and his 2009 election win, when Chin had been at Hersbt’s home as the election results came in.
Herbst said the fact that he and Chin were longtime friends could have put Chin’s job security in jeopardy when Tesoro took over.
“Bill was walking on eggshells,” Herbst said. “Here he was, a former member of the Republican Town Committee, and he was going to have access to the administration’s emails. I felt there was a possibility that he could be put under duress.”
But regardless of the obligations he felt to friendship and his job, Chin said he had resolved to tell the truth. An Eagle Scout and recipient of the Boy Scout Order of the Arrow Distinguished Service Award, he said living up to the Scout Law is something that Eagle Scouts — among them astronauts Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell and President Gerald Ford, take seriously.
“The first line, ‘A Scout is Trustworthy,’ is something we are expected to live up to every day,” Chin said. “A Scout tells the truth.”
Chin said he and Herbst had not spoken since the hearing, but a few days later he noticed that he had been unfriended on Facebook.
“It’s sad to lose a friend over something like this,” Chin said. “But I was under oath. What do you want me to do?”
Asked for comment on the FOI hearing, Tesoro issued a short written statement that Chin’s testimony had raised serious questions that need to be resolved.
“I have turned the matter over to our Town Attorneys to determine the appropriate action,” she wrote. “The processes of government must be above reproach and follow the law in all respects. The people of Trumbull deserve no less.”