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Lawyers defending County Executive Chris Collins and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard
By Matthew Spina , NEWS STAFF REPORTER , buffalonews.com
Published: 07/27/2011

Lawyers defending County Executive Chris Collins and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard have served subpoenas on the local League of Women Voters and two other small volunteer groups that have focused on conditions inside the Erie County jails.

The Erie County lawyers want the information the groups might have provided to the U.S. Justice Department for its broad lawsuit seeking to upgrade conditions at the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the County Correctional Facility in Alden.

County lawyers demand all correspondence, with no time limit, between the organizations and the Justice Department. They also want any documents about jail conditions that current or former county employees or inmates gave to the groups -- potentially exposing any insider who leaked records.

"These subpoenas are a clumsy fishing expedition," the New York Civil Liberties Union said in legal papers filed today seeking to quash, on First Amendment grounds, the subpoenas served on the League of Women Voters, the Erie County Prisoners Rights Coalition and the Partnership for the Public Good. Surrendering the documents, the lawyers wrote, would expose the groups' activities to county scrutiny.

"Your clients provided information to the United States to assist it in filing a lawsuit against the county," County Attorney Jeremy A. Colby said in a letter to the Civil Liberties Union in April, as he was being urged to drop the subpoenas. " ... Your clients cannot selectively disclose information to one party and then refuse to respond to the county's subpoena."

The subpoenas were served Nov. 10, and the groups were allowed just 20 days to respond. County lawyers later extended the holiday-season deadline, and the Civil Liberties Union soon after began a months-long effort to persuade the county to drop its demands.

The subpoenas' roots go back to October. The Justice Department, in a mandatory disclosure to the county, identified the groups as among those which might have "potentially discoverable" information. But the groups say the demands are too broad, they are time-consuming and expensive to fulfill, and doing so would chill activities that should be protected by the First Amendment.

In his affidavit filed in U.S. District Court, Sam Magavern of the Partnership for the Public Good said the volunteer group's main role of late was to to urge the County Legislature to again empanel a "Community Corrections Advisory Board" -- citizens who would recommend ways to better run the facilities. "People who have worked with us on Holding Center issues may be less likely to do so if they know that documents they share with us may be turned over to the county," his affidavit said.

Karima Amin, who sits on the advisory board, also serves as a chairwoman of the Prisoners Rights Coalition. "Our volunteers have full-time and part-time jobs, family and religious obligations ... that would prevent them from helping us respond to the subpoena," she said in her statement. "We have neither staff nor interns who could do the work for us."

Therese Warden took part in League of Women Voters studies on the assistance former inmates are given as they re-enter society. Those studies "involved the collection of personal, private information from women inmates," she said in her affidavit. "This information was gathered with the understanding that it would be kept confidential. It included information not only about the inmates themselves, but about their children and families. Our ability to conduct effective studies like this depends on facilitating trust ... "

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