The ACLU of Massachusetts and ethics watchdog American Oversight today filed a brief in support of their lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the release of records concerning the prosecution of a Massachusetts state judge, including the emails and text messages of seven senior agency officials. 

In a recent filing, ICE admitted that, during the Trump administration, the agency had a “standard practice…to factory/reset/securely wipe/destroy and delete all contents of mobile phone devices as they were being taken out of service.” Among other things, the new American Oversight and ACLU brief asks the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts to require ICE to provide more information about its apparent “practice” of intentionally destroying the text messages of its senior officials made on their government-issued devices, and to conduct additional records searches.

“The federal government cannot be allowed to openly flout its Freedom of Information Act obligations to release records,” said Melanie Sloan, senior advisor at American Oversight. “Deleting records and resetting devices in contravention of the law is unacceptable and ICE must be held accountable.” 

The prosecution of Massachusetts Judge Shelley M. Richmond Joseph arose in the context of a dispute between the Massachusetts and federal governments over whether ICE could make civil immigration arrests in and around Massachusetts courthouses. In 2019, federal authorities indicted Judge Joseph and Court Officer Wesley MacGregor for allegedly allowing a criminal defendant to exit using the rear door of the courthouse while an ICE agent was waiting in the lobby. 

“ICE made an unprecedented decision to deploy federal criminal charges against a Massachusetts judge because it disagreed with her actions on the bench,” said Daniel McFadden, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The public has a right to know how this prosecution arose, whether it was part of a pressure campaign to force Massachusetts court officials to assist in federal immigration enforcement, and whether ICE intentionally destroyed relevant public records relating to an ongoing criminal prosecution.”

American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed the Freedom of Information Act request at the center of this lawsuit in November 2019 following a report by the New York Times in which Thomas Homan, former acting director of ICE, was quoted as saying he was informed about the incident resulting in Judge Joseph’s prosecution the same day it happened, and “immediately” initiated a response within ICE’s senior leadership team. After ICE failed to produce any records, American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed this lawsuit in May 2021.

Though the agency has since produced some documents, it has not released any records related to Homan’s April 2018 actions. The FOIA request seeks all records concerning the incident, including communications between Homan and Albence, and any guidance or directives provided to then-U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling. 

Documents produced by ICE in October 2021 include an email that showed top ICE attorney Tracy Short asking if Joseph’s arrest would be the “first of many.” On the day of Joseph’s indictment, Short wrote to senior ICE leadership, “This is a great day.” ICE Chief of Staff Thomas Blank simply responded “Blessed.”