This story has been updated to include a Thursday statement from Chris Hill.
A Collin County Commissioners Court meeting dissolved into heated debate on Monday between County Judge Chris Hill and District Clerk Lynne Finley after Finley accused Hill of “stealing” her emails.
During a special session of the Commissioners Court that focused on budget items, Finley accused Hill of stealing hundreds of her emails without approval and said there had been a “security breach.” After requesting an independent exchange server for information and emails, Finley alleged that Hill, after requesting copies of her emails through a public information request, didn’t give her the necessary time to vet the requested documents for exempt or protected information and that he instead “took” them beforehand.
“As the district clerk, I work with the courts. I work with a lot of sensitive material,” Finley said. “That’s why, under the Public Information Act, we have a right to exemptions and to privileges, because they are needed to protect the work that we do.”
Hill denied that anything had been stolen and denied that there had been a breach. Hill also said he had requested the records not as a member of the public but in his official capacity as the county judge, and that the request was done and processed under the extent of the law.
“There was an elected official who requested directly from the IT department my emails…” Finley said Monday.
“Oh you mean me,” Hill said.
“Yes I do.”
“You don’t mean a breach, you mean that I asked for a copy of your…”
“You stole them,” Finley said.
“I’m sorry what?” Hill replied.
“You stole them.”
Hill said the allegation that there was a breach was “a very inappropriate statement.”
Hill alleged that Finley had been notified that the records were requested, that she had responded by saying she wanted time to look them over and then that she had said she “did not want (her) records released.”
“You were advised, you cannot shield them just because you want to shield them,” Hill said.
Finley said officials have to vet for privileges and exemptions.
“I’ve never said I don’t want you to have my records, what I’ve said is I need to vet and make sure whatever is exempt or privileged is not given up, because you are not above those exemptions and privileges,” she told Hill. “You just aren’t.”
Hill said he didn’t have any emails of Finley’s that were privileged.
The argument revealed that Hill had also requested a record of Finley’s key card usage to gain access to the Collin County Courthouse campus. Hill said the report demonstrated that Finley had not been on the campus for six months during the COVID-19 pandemic while her office was open.
“Your employees were still here working, but you were not to be found one day out of six months,” Hill said. “They were here, but you were not. And that frustrated me to no end. I didn’t know about it until it was brought to my attention by people who also were frustrated about it. I verified it through that report.”
Hill said he had asked the county attorney in a letter if anything could be done about Finley’s behavior, and he said the attorney had said no.
Finley said she and her family members were at a high risk for COVID-19.
“Did you know that we had a state of the office call every Friday? And you know why we did that? Because 50% of people were working remotely,” Finley said.
She added that her office had run smoothly and that she had worked through about 7,000 emails during the time period in question.
“You wanted me to come to this court in October before we even had a vaccine,” Finley said. “You almost demanded I appeared in person until you realized I actually have a letter from my doctor who says ‘You should not be in public.’ You wanted to force me to be here.”
Hill said his accusation did not question whether she had been doing work.
“It questioned your attendance at county facilities while you were requiring your staff to attend and you were not attending,” Hill said.
“That is not accurate,” Finley said.
Finley also said she believed Hill wanted her removed from office.
“I don’t remember exactly how I said it,” Hill replied, “but quite frankly I did believe then and I do believe now that your behavior warranted removal from office, so if you’re asking for clarification, let me clarify, yes.”
The heated interaction ended after about 30 minutes.
“My guess is if we talked to the public at large over who has done a better job, they’d probably say me,” Finley said.
“OK,” Hill said, “I think we’re about to initiate that conversation.”
On Wednesday, Finley provided a written statement to Star Local Media.
“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,” Finley stated. “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.”
When asked about that portion of the statement, a Collin County spokesperson said the elected officials involved in the interaction would need to speak to their exchange.
Finley said she had been told that her request for an independent email server for the Office of the District Clerk was “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,” Finley stated.
A Thursday morning statement from Hill’s office said that since 2019, Collin County had been compelled to respond to a series of legal, financial and personnel issues originating in the office of the Collin County District Clerk. Hill stated that he sent a letter to the county’s attorney in November that detailed “issues” with the office and that sought guidance on how to protect the county from “potential liabilities.”
Hill stated he submitted a formal request for selected emails from the district clerk’s official email account as part of an ongoing inquiry, that the request was submitted through official channels and that the district clerk and County Commissioners were informed about the request.
“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,” Hill said in the statement. “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 statement included a copy of the November letter, which included multiple allegations against Finley, including that her actions resulted in the District Clerk’s Office losing the ability to provide passport services to county citizens and that she denied two employees the ability to work remotely during the pandemic when they had underlying health conditions.
Star Local Media has requested comment from Finley regarding Hill’s latest statement and is awaiting a response.