Wednesday 20 April 2011

Coiney "Guilds" Want Access to Deceased Archaeologist's EMails

The sad saga of the legal challenge by coiney trade organizations the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN), and the Professional Numismatists Guild, Inc. PNG to US government restrictions on the import of illegally exported coins continues. Much to their shame, these groups (collectively known in the latest court document as the "Guilds") are fighting US implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and making a dreadful and expensive mess of it. At the same time they are showing the world as clearly as could be wished by their preservationist opponents, the basis of the no-questions-asked international trade in dugup antiquities such as coins.

There has been a new development in their long-running Freedom of Information challenge which is one of the two prongs of their strategy in this attack on decency. An attack for which dealers and collectors are willing to donate thousands of dollars, raised through the sale of hundreds of decontextualised dugup ancient coins. The dealers' associations appealed a court ruling upholding the State Department's justifications for supplying the information they did on the basis of the malicious FOI request of the dealers. A verdict from the appeal court has just been released. A link to the document is published on the ACCG website. It is described there briefly thus:
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the U.S. District Court in the ACCG-IAPN-PNG FOIA case. The Court affirmed most of the withholdings, but reversed the District Court’s decision on one document, and also ordered a more thorough search for certain material. The Plaintiffs are reviewing the ruling to ascertain whether any further action on the appellate level is warranted.
The court's verdict contains such appellate court legalese such as "The Guilds' evidence falls way short", "we need not worry about the implications of "limited" disclosure", but having ploughed through it, readers will discover that the implications of one document on which the court actually reversed the decision of the District Court leave a very bad taste in the mouth:
’This withholding involves various redactions from six separate emails exchanged between the late Danielle Parks, a professor of archeology who did field work in Cyprus, and Andrew Cohen, an employee of the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. To justify their withholding, Ms. Grafeld said, "These emails contain some information that was provided in confidence by Danielle Parks, an individual in the private sector, to a staff member of ECA's Cultural Heritage Center in connection with the then-upcoming Committee meetings regarding potential extension of the bilateral cultural property agreement" with the government of Cyprus. [...] On remand, State may provide additional reasons for its belief that Parks provided information in confidence. But its explanation in the record before us is inadequate.
The ACCG, IAPN and PNG are after private emails of a deceased person? Private emails? What are they going to do, seize her computer? How low can the coineys stoop? So it seems from this that Parks wrote to Cohen and there are internal hints in the mails that she expected this to be an exchange between her and Cohen, and the coineys received some of that information and want to see the whole of those emails? Why? What possible relevance can they have to their case, that ACCG, IAPN and PNG dealers in the US should not be prevented from importing coins illegally exported from Cyprus?

The other minor victory of the ACCG, IAPN and PNG also refers to old emails. They argue that "State failed to show the adequacy of its search, because it didn't address its employees' archived emails and backup tapes" [which "might contain emails no longer preserved on staff members' computers"]. In particular it seems although emails written to and by the Bureau's Assistant Secretary and CPAC were presented as a result of the FOI request. They complain that no mention is made of the search of all these backup tapes (which of course will not be organized for retrieval of individual documents or files, but rather for purposes of disaster recovery) for email correspondence which might be additional to that released.The recent ruling reads:
Nowhere does State explain whether it possesses email archives for Bureau employees other than the former staff member, whether there are backup tapes containing staff member emails and, if so, whether such backup tapes might contain emails no longer preserved on staff members' computers. It may well be that searching additional emails archives and backup tapes would be impossible, impractical, or futile [...] We also note that Ms. Grafeld states, after a 12-page review of what State had searched, "There are no other places that if searched would have a reasonable likelihood of containing additional responsive material." [...] given that the Guilds raised the issue of backup tapes before the district court, we think this a gap that State needed to fill in order to carry its burden as to the adequacy of its search. Specifically, under the circumstances it is reasonable to expect State to inform the court and plaintiffs whether backup tapes of any potential relevance exist; if so whether their responsive material is reasonably likely to add to that already delivered; and, if these questions are answered affirmatively, whether there is any practical obstacle to searching them.
Apart, that is, from how much that is going to cost the US taxpayer so that coin dealers can fight for their "rights" to import illegally exported coins?

You know, if I were a coin collector, I'd be blogging away and posting to the forums that this kind of activity, dredging around in dead people's email correspondence, is not something I'd want dealers to be doing in my name, ostensibly in "defence" of the kind of hobby I would want to be involved in. I would tell them this is just gross and unnecessary, and ask them to stop and just get on selling me coins that they can document have been legally imported instead of making a big show about how the dealers still want to fill the market with illegally exported items. But then I am not a coin collector, and they do not. And you would not see it anyway because they hide their discussions away from public view as though they were involved in something less-than-legal.

I just hope that, since they started this, one day soon we are going to see the seizure of some computers of ACCG, AIPN and PNG dealers and that they will have no objections to some Freedom of Information in having their hard-discs and 'backup tapes' searched for emails from suppliers and collectors which may have been 'deleted' to try and hide the network of movement of the coins they handle. And then have some investigators go and visit some of the recipients and senders of those emails. That would be far more revealing than anything Dr Parks wrote to Mr Cohen. Let us see some real 'transparency'; let's have a proper audit and let investigators find out just what these people are trading and buying that they are so concerned about these regulations which only concern illegally exported artefacts.

Vignette: the late Dr Danielle Parks R.I.P., coin dealers want to see all of her old emails to Mr Cohen.

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