A deceptively quiet-looking Dallas City Hall. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Local Government

The FBI Is Now Involved in Dallas City Hall’s Massive Data Deletion Snafu

The feds are assessing whether there is sufficient evidence to support that a crime occurred. Meanwhile, the city engages a third-party to do its own audit.

A Dallas City Council committee on Friday announced that the FBI is investigating the recent loss of police data to determine whether a crime was committed. There will soon be three independent analyses underway after an IT staffer deleted about 23 terabytes of mostly police data, including files from cases involving family violence and child abuse: the FBI’s, the city’s IT department, and an outside agency that the council approved for an independent audit. (For the record, a single terabyte is about a quarter of a million images or 6.5 million document pages.)

The meeting on Friday afternoon was to determine whether an outside audit was necessary, something the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association has called for. City staff are still unclear about what was included in the trove of data that the IT employee deleted during a migration. Bill Zielinski, the city’s chief information officer, said in-house staffers are comparing metadata of what was deleted to case files to determine what is missing. He said the city’s report would be complete on September 30.

But the committee on Friday voted to have City Attorney Chris Caso engage with a few law firms to manage an independent audit of what happened, what was deleted, and how such a thing could be prevented in the future. That law firm will then hire forensics experts to perform the investigation. The scope of that work is, as of now, unclear. But former U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox advised council keep the parameters as narrow as possible.

“These situations should be limited. They’re costly for the city and taxpayers but there are times they are necessary to restore public confidence,” said Nealy Cox, a forensic expert who is now a partner with the Dallas-based law firm Kirkland and Ellis. “You should have a very narrow scope for this kind of investigation so you can have a beginning and an end.”

In 30 days, Caso will bring three local law firms to council for questioning. A more specific scope will be determined after these discussions, but Caso was clear: the investigation will be tailored largely to the police department where the losses occurred. There will surely be process questions and backup questions and other details that are outside the realm of expertise of many on council.

And, indeed, that is why the FBI is here, first assessing whether there is enough evidence to pursue a criminal investigation. According to Dallas Police Assistant Chief Albert Martinez, the department recognized that it didn’t have the expertise in cyber forensics and Police Chief Eddie Garcia engaged the FBI to take the lead.

Previously, the department chose not to file charges against the employee responsible. But Martinez said investigators could not “prove or disprove that a deliberate act took place in that data deletion.” (The employee has since been fired.) The cases in the original deletion were within the last three years. The time frame isn’t clear for the deletion that was identified most recently.

Friday’s meeting was, by its nature, a box-check to engage an outside expert to assess what happened. Council members asked questions, but mostly to wrap their heads around the situation as a whole (Tennell Atkins), define council’s responsibility for establishing the scope of investigating a complicated and somewhat foreign topic (Paula Blackmon, Jaynie Schultz), or figure out the status of existing investigations (Cara Mendelsohn, Adam McGough).

We didn’t really learn much. We still don’t know how one employee had the power to permanently delete important criminal case data three separate times without a backup. We don’t know why it took so long for city officials to notice the data was even missing: They only learned of the first two occasions after starting an investigation into the third. And we don’t know exactly what is missing and we don’t know where the breakdowns archiving occurred. Zielinski said this would all be part of the city’s investigation, which he said will be made public at the end of the month. Now, a third-party will also go over the matter.

But attorneys are furious. Brad Lollar, a public defender who serves as deputy chief of the office’s murder division, said his colleagues cannot adequately advise their clients regarding the evidence the city has against them. He compared an internal investigation to a “fox guarding the hen house.”

“We’re all calling for an independent investigation,” Lollar told the council committee. “I’ve got 11 capital murder, Dallas Police Department cases that I’m responsible for. I’ve got two other murder cases that DPD has filed against my clients and I’ve got four of them set for trial before the end of the year. I cannot tell them right now whether we have all the evidence.”

In the meantime, the city has drawn more attention to the individual responsible rather than the systems that allowed for the employee to make these errors. If anything, that is where these investigations should start, as we are not any closer to answering the primary question here: how in the hell does this happen in the first place, much less three times?

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