Collin County Judge Chris Hill responded today to a startling allegation earlier this week that he “stole” emails from another county official.
During the county’s annual budget workshop on Monday, District Clerk Lynne Finley asked the commissioners court to pay for a private email server for her office, saying her department had suffered a security “breach” in which “hundreds of my emails were taken without my approval.”
Commissioners were taken aback by the assertion, and Hill asked Finley to clarify.
“There was an elected official who requested directly from the IT department my emails,” Finley said.
“Oh! You mean me?” Hill responded. “You don’t mean a breach. You mean I asked for a copy of your [emails].”
“You stole them,” Finley said. “You stole them.”
Hill explained to Finley and commissioners that he had gone through “appropriate and legal” channels to request copies of certain emails from the clerk’s office, seeking information since revealed to be related to Finley’s job performance dating back to 2019.
“To be clear, there has been no security breach… and no records of yours were stolen,” Hill told Finley. “You can stand up here and say they were stolen, but it is a lie.”
Judge Hill is the chief executive of the county government, but he does not have supervisory authority over the elected district clerk.
Thursday morning, Hill released an official statement (with more details added Thursday afternoon) about his open records request:
Since 2019, the Collin County Commissioners Court has been compelled to respond to a series of legal, financial, and personnel issues originating in the office of the Collin County District Clerk. In November 2020, County Judge Chris Hill sent a letter to the county’s attorney detailing the issues and seeking guidance on how to protect the county from potential liabilities.
As part of the ongoing inquiry into the District Clerk’s office, Judge Hill submitted a formal request for selected emails from the District Clerk’s official email account. The request was submitted through official channels, and the District Clerk and the County Commissioners were informed about Judge Hill’s inquiry. Before any emails were provided or reviewed, the county’s attorney evaluated the inquiry and advised the Commissioners Court that the request was legal and valid.
It is unfortunate that the District Clerk has failed to address the underlying issues that plague her office and continues to demonstrate the poor leadership that caused these issues in the first place.
Hill’s statements included a copy of the November 2020 letter he sent to the county attorney detailing issues with Finley’s job performance, including complaints she failed to perform her duties or even show up for work.
In his updated statement, Hill says Finley has “threatened litigation” against commissioners court.
Finley released her own statement to WFAA on Tuesday, which read in part:
Chris Hill, the Collin County Judge, on one or more occasions, improperly seized documents and emails under my care, custody and control, without my knowledge or consent, by improperly accessing the email servers used by the Office of the District Clerk. When Judge Hill’s misconduct was discovered, both the Office of the District Clerk, and the Collin County IT Department notified him in writing that his conduct was inappropriate and in violation of State and Federal law. Despite repeated warnings, Judge Hill improperly seized a significant number of protected communications and documents on one or more occasions.
In an effort to protect the documents in my custody from further misappropriation, I requested that the Collin County Commissioners Court provide me with a budget to obtain an independent email server for the Office of the District Clerk. I am informed by the budget department that my request is ‘not recommended.’
If the Collin County Commissioners do not approve an independent email server to protect the documents and communications under my control from the type of improper access perpetrated by County Judge Hill, I will have exhausted every reasonable remedy at my disposal to satisfy my statutory duties to protect the documents under my care, and I will be left with no remaining option but to seek an injunction preventing Judge Hill from releasing the documents he improperly seized.
“This was meant to to be played out privately, but from this point we will take a different approach,” Hill concluded Monday.
As the disagreement between Hill and Finley unfolds, commissioners are continuing to conduct the county’s budget workshop this week.
UPDATED to include Hill’s expanded statement.