It’s not just the Secret Service that deleted text messages after specifically being asked to preserve such internal communications. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully admitted in litigation ongoing in Massachusetts that top officials with the previous administration erased texts even after a government watchdog and civil rights organizations had filed public records requests. Phones belonging to Thomas Homan, Ronald Vitiello, and Matthew Albence—all of whom at one point served as the agency’s acting director—were wiped.
“ICE’s filings assert that not only did five of these senior officials wipe their ICE-issued devices, but that doing so was in compliance with instructions issued across the agency,” a statement said.
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“This revelation was included in filings that are part of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by nonpartisan watchdog group American Oversight and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts that seeks records concerning the federal criminal prosecution of Massachusetts state court Judge Shelley M. Richmond Joseph, including the emails and text messages of seven senior agency officials,” the ACLU of Massachusetts said.
That judge is facing trial after allowing a defendant to leave her courtroom from a back entrance in April 2018. ICE agents had been waiting to sweep the defendant up at a different door, despite many judges vocally condemning this practice by federal immigration officials. American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts said that Homan “immediately” asked if ICE lawyers could pursue action against the judge, while former legal adviser Tracy Short boasted her arrest would be “first of many.”
While American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed records requests relating to ICE’s reaction to the incident the following November, most phones were still wiped. “All but one of these deletions occurred after American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts specifically requested information from these devices,” the ACLU said.
“In the supplemental declarations filed on Thursday, ICE asserted that it instructed employees to wipe their agency-issued phones upon departure, and suggested that the agency had no policy of preserving data on those cell phones,” American Oversight said. “According to the declarations, ICE employees were left to their own discretion as to whether communications sent using their mobile devices needed to be memorialized, and even then, employees were not required to preserve the original messages themselves. Moreover, agency personnel were instructed to erase phone data upon their departure from the agency.”
This is not reassuring when it comes to any government agency, especially this one. In another example this past year, ICE knew that an abusive jail in Florida was illegally erasing surveillance footage but failed to report it to the National Archives and Records Administration as required by law. ICE also failed to reprimand the Glades County Detention Center for deleting the footage in the first place.
“The deletion of security footage at Glades is not the only example of ICE’s attempts to skirt recordkeeping laws,” the ACLU of Florida and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said at the time. “In 2019, ICE obtained permission from the National Archives to destroy years’ worth of sexual assault and death investigation records from ICE facilities across the country—a plan later blocked by a federal judge following a lawsuit filed by CREW.”
Several of the ICE officials in the litigation are also well-known for all the wrong reasons. Homan was a central figure in the previous administration’s separation of families at the southern border, a crime against humanity that remains one of the darkest moments in our nation’s modern history. Vitiello, who succeeded Homan as acting director, dismissed those separations as “only 2,500 people” affected. Albence, another acting director under that administration, once compared migrant family jails to summer camp. He has since moved on to a job with private prison profiteer GEO Group.
The ACLU further noted that ICE officials were apparently using an “honor system” where they would summarize their text communications in a memo versus just preserving the text themselves. But there is no “honor” when it comes to ICE. “ICE’s assertion that many of its most senior officials wiped their phones between 2019 to 2021 raises serious questions about whether ICE, under the Trump administration, violated public records retention laws and the separate requirements to preserve and disclose evidence relevant to ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions,” said Daniel McFadden, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
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