Files are gone, but questions remain

Public deserves answers over missing data from Fred Russell's computer

It appears Marion Williams got a bite.

In our Jan. 24 editorial about the Augusta commissioner’s fishing trip into former City Administrator Fred Russell’s computer files, we left open the real possibility that Williams just might find something.

Actually, it was what Williams didn’t find that triggers a torrent of questions about Russell and his activities in office.

The number of printed documents Williams received in his investigation appeared unusually light. A stack of paper less than 4 inches high, by Williams’ estimate, supposedly represents five years’ worth of data culled from a work computer belonging to the city administrator of Georgia’s second-largest city.

And on the heels of Williams’ complaints that the bulk of Russell’s records likely were erased, TV station WRDW reported that Russell admitted deleting everything from his work computer.

On Tuesday morning, Russell’s campaign manager in the Augusta mayoral race said Russell is no longer running.

The biggest question, of course, is: Why did he do it? Why did Russell wipe all that data from his computer?

He knew it was the property of the city. And he had reason to know the city would be interested in it: The contents of his hard drive were an issue as long ago as 2007.

A WRDW reporter quoted Russell as saying he did it because he wanted to. Wrong. That’s an explanation more suit­ed for a 3-year-old caught reaching in a cookie jar, not for a municipal employee who was responsible for a city budget of almost $700 million at the time he left his post.

What was on Russell’s hard drive that he apparently didn’t want seen?

We would assume the city has data servers that keep information stored even if data is deleted at the computer source. If so, were Russell’s records also wiped from any connected servers? If so, who did it? And under what pretenses?

Will these unfolding circumstances have an effect on Russell’s severance? Did he break faith with his employers and the city by erasing records he knew were under scrutiny? Shouldn’t a severance be contingent on good behavior?

What is the legality of Russell’s actions? Was it even his data to destroy? Wasn’t it the city’s data, generated by him during his duties as city administrator?

Are there any violations of the state’s open records laws?

The legal question is especially troubling. Russell was a longtime law officer and a former deputy police chief for Richmond, Va. If laws were broken, it reflects that much more poorly on him.

It’s increasingly hard to believe that Russell’s decision to drop out of the mayor’s race is not related to these disturbing revelations about a potential wealth of missing information.

In much of Russell’s dealings with the media, he has been curt and coy, and sanguine to the point of stand offishness. He has taken “unflappable” to the point of being a fault. Nor did he relish talking to WRDW – initially insinuating that Commissioner Williams was all wet about the hard drive being emptied.

That cat-and-mouse act is all the more bizarre for someone who was toying with asking for your vote for mayor.

Now he seems to be playing games with the taxpayers and the public’s information, and that is inexcusable.

The mystery of these missing files begs for prompt, detailed answers.

Taxpayers made a nice life for Mr. Russell for a decade. He owes them more than he’s giving them.

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