by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Only four months after we learned Bush administration officials deleted thousands of e-mails from their servers between 2003 and 2005 in direct violation of the Presidential Records Act, we learn that a similar practice of destroying e-mails is occurring in Gov. Matt Blunt’s office in violation of Missouri’s Open Meetings and Records Law.
This destruction of public records by the governor’s staff is disturbing and wrong for several reasons.
First, it destroys the ability of the public to understand how decisions are made in the governor’s office. The Sunshine Law is Missouri’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, and it allows regular citizens reasonable access to government records so that they can investigate and learn about the inner workings of their government. Not all e-mail correspondence would necessarily be available to the public under the Sunshine Law, but now there is no possibility for e-mail communications to be made available.
Second, this practice might be destroying evidence that could be used in civil or criminal court cases. If someone in the governor’s office misused his or her position in government to benefit or injure a fellow Missourian, e-mail correspondence might be critical in prosecuting a case or proving innocence.
Third, because the governor’s staff knows e-mail records will not be maintained, some might be tempted to use e-mail and state resources for activities they shouldn’t be doing while on the public payroll, such as political campaign work.
Fourth, by breaking the public trust, this practice further erodes the public’s confidence in state government and reduces people’s willingness to participate in government or even vote.
And, finally, it’s illegal.
As the state’s chief executive, you would think Blunt wouldn’t be quite so cavalier about breaking the law. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that, “in explaining his staff’s intentions,” Blunt “said with a chuckle, ‘I think people are trying to have a clear and manageable in-box. That’s what they’re trying to do.’ “
This from a governor who loves to tout his leadership in e-government and spent $58,354 on new computers when he moved into the governor’s office in 2005.
“It’s important to have equipment and tools that allow you to be effective in your job,” Blunt said then.
Outfitted with these new computers – and fresh hard drives – there is no reason e-mail records should not have been preserved.
Technically, it is not hard to archive and store e-mails. My current computer has every e-mail that I have sent or received for the past six years – including attachments – and this data get backed up three times a week to a local server and once a week to an off-site location. Most businesses have similar archiving capabilities simply because data are critical to their operations.
Most other statewide offices have implemented a way to back up and preserve their documents and e-mails. Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Attorney General Jay Nixon, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and State Auditor Susan Montee apparently all have systems that preserve e-mails for at least the three years required by state law. The fact is that disk space is cheap and most e-mails are very small documents – there is simply no reason to not keep them.
As others have pointed out, there is no real punishment for breaking the Sunshine Law in Missouri, making compliance almost voluntary. This lack of punishment has apparently encouraged the governor’s office to err on the side of not preserving their e-mails.
It seems clear to me what the penalty should be for destroying public records – removal from office. It sounds harsh, but considering how easy it is to maintain e-mails and electronic records, there is no acceptable excuse for destroying these records. Making the destruction of public records an impeachable offense would certainly cause office holders to err on the side of preserving everything.
We have no problem removing someone from office who steals money from the public. Shouldn’t we punish stealing the public record just as harshly? After all, money can be replaced, history can’t.
In addition, we should require that every office holder publicly certify that they are properly maintaining their electronic and other records. This is not to say such records would automatically be made public, but the public should be assured documents are being properly maintained.
Right now, it is only after a reporter or a citizen group makes a particular inquiry that we find out whether records have been kept properly. Having to file an annual certification with the secretary of state saying how and where records are maintained would keep the importance of record keeping on the minds of every public official.
Without the ability to see how the inner cogs and wheels of government mesh to produce the policies and laws that affect us, it’s hard for us citizens to put our trust in government.
Hopefully, the governor is capable of learning what most of us already know: That transparency is a requirement for good government.