An embattled prosecutor facing a contempt charge for deleting e-mails was grilled Friday by a federal judge who said he should have known better than to erase material he had been ordered to turn over.
“In fact, it can be a crime to destroy documents, can’t it?” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt asked Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. “It’s called obstruction of justice, isn’t it?”
Rosenthal told Hoyt he was just tidying up the appearance of his e-mail system when he deleted more than 2,500 e-mails the judge had ordered him to produce.
“I didn’t think I was hard-deleting anything,” Rosenthal said. “I thought the system maintained whatever I deleted in a separate part of the information technology system that could be retrieved to satisfy the subpoena.”
The manager of the office’s computer systems testified Thursday that he likely never will be able to recover 2,000 of the deleted messages.
Rosenthal could be fined or jailed if Hoyt finds him in contempt of court.
Pornographic, racist, romantic e-mails released
More than 1,500 e-mails remained on Rosenthal’s computer or were recovered, and Hoyt released a batch last month that included pornographic, racist and political messages. Love notes between the married prosecutor and his secretary were mistakenly released and then resealed.
Since the e-mails were made public, the Republican district attorney has been forced to drop his re-election bid and has faced almost daily calls to resign, including from hundreds of protesters who crowded the courtroom Thursday after marching from his office to federal court.
Lloyd Kelley, an attorney handling a civil rights lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, had requested all the e-mails Rosenthal sent and received between July and mid-October. Kelley filed the motion seeking contempt charges against Rosenthal.
In a deposition, Rosenthal said he deleted everything in his sent folder that was older than Nov. 4 and everything in his inbox that was older than May 3.
However, he described a different process to the judge on Friday, saying he reviewed his e-mails and deleted ones he didn’t think he needed any more.
When Kelley asked him about records showing he deleted several messages from September and October of last year, he acknowledged his earlier testimony was wrong.
“So what you told the court was false?” Kelley asked.
“Based upon these (records), yes sir,” Rosenthal replied.
Rosenthal, who was first elected in 2000, presides over an office that sends more convicts to death row than any other prosecutors’ office in the nation.
The state is investigating whether the political strategy e-mails, conducted on government computers, violate state law.