Maricopa County going after bloggers?

Or so it seems.  This actually raises some interesting questions about free speech, conflict of interest, and bureaucratic overreach, in a county where the sheriff usually gets all of the national attention.  The Maricopa County (AZ) Manager sent a letter to its Public Information Officer demanding to know whether he had communicated with the blog Sonoran Alliance, which publishes mainly anonymous posts with detailed inside information on government actions and policy.  The demand extended beyond Michael Scerbo’s official actions to any contact he made on his own personal time, as the letter indicates (via Instapundit):

Even with all of the court rulings in 2009, you are a lawyer representing Maricopa County.  This letter is sent to you by your client requesting information from you. …

As part of Maricopa County’s continued effort to receive conflict free legal advice we request that each of you personally answer the following questions, in writing, within five days of the date of this letter and send your answers to me.  The questions must be answered under the Ethical Rules, whether or not a computer, BlackBerry, or other device used was the property of Maricopa County or a personally owned device or machine.  A lawyer’s ethical duties do not cease at the office door.

The opening “Even with all the court rulings of 2009,” tends to indicate that Scerbo did not act as a lawyer to the county manager, and that David R. Smith knows he’s reaching with this bullying demand letter.  A PIO is usually a public relations position, not an attorney.  Even if Scerbo is an attorney, the advice he gives the county would not be legal advice but political and public-relations advice.  There would be no expectation of attorney-client privilege in that relationship, and therefore the entire justification of the letter seems very suspect.

Even if he did act as an attorney in his official duties, does Smith have the right to demand that Scerbo disclose all of his “associations” as a condition of employment?  If I hired a lawyer and then demanded to see the hard drives of his home computer, I suspect that I would get laughed out of the office and find myself looking for new representation.  Furthermore, while leaks are usually illegal and almost always unethical (as there are other ways to address problems within channels), this is not a question of private transactions between a lawyer and his client.  The leaks would involve actions by public officials, who should have no expectations of privacy — and who, in fact, should be held to the highest degree of transparency.  The fact that Smith send these letters strongly suggests that he is less interested in accountability than in silencing dissent, hardly a healthy trait.

The Sonoran Alliance is not standing by silently, either:

Over time, several of our bloggers have reported on the machinations of County Government but these have been reported elsewhere or are in the public domain. Our posts are also considered editorial pieces which I would remind Manager Smith that he is the manager of  the 5th largest county in the country which is not without disagreements and controversy.

The other point I would make, and I hope the County Manager reads this, is that I have never, do not and never will reveal the identities of those who write for Sonoran Alliance. Over the years, we have had almost two dozen contributors to this blog and I am not about to expose any of them over some county public relations problem. Similarly, I also want to be clear that Sonoran Alliance does not reveal any relationships it has with local, county, state or federal governmental entities.

I recognize that this latest battle is between the County Manager and the County Attorney. I have NOT been approached by anyone from the County Manager’s Office regarding this inquisition and I would warn the County Manager that he may be treading dangerously close to chilling someone’s First Amendment rights.

The county manager is certainly dangerously close to making an ass of himself.

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