Governor Hickenlooper’s office gave no serious or meaningful answer to transparency questions posed by Complete Colorado in follow-up to an exclusive report in which a former state employee says he was ordered to delete emails.
Dan Bradley worked for the Colorado Department of Revenue (DOR) for just over two years, and claims during that time, DOR Executive Director Barbara Brohl ordered him and others to delete emails which discussed how the department was assembling a response to an open records request.
Complete Colorado posed the following three questions to the governor’s spokeswoman, Kathy Green, and asked for individual answers for each individual question:
- Is having an environment where email documents can be permanently deleted immediately — especially at the instruction of a superior — is having such an environment acceptable? Why or why not?
- The Google system currently being used allows for this kind of permanent deletion, yet there are automatic backup systems available, I.e. Google Vault. Has the Governor’s office considered expanding the number of users in state government who have Google Vault? Why or why not?
- Couldn’t the governor immediately prohibit managers from ordering the destruction of documents less than 30 days old? Would the governor consider taking such an action? Why or why not?
In response, Green said by email, “The governor’s office takes transparency and accountability very seriously. Everyone responds fully to all proper open records requests and will continue to do so.”
The answer clearly evaded the central questions about how long email documents should be preserved for public inspection, and whether persons in management positions could or should be able to order the early destruction of documents.
Nearly all state agencies under the control of the governor’s office converted to a Google-based email service about three years ago. For the first two-and-a-half years of using the Google system, a state employee could permanently delete an email such that recovery was impossible. Recently, the state has said they might have the ability to recover deleted emails provided they are less than 30 days old. But the state’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) said last month they are still testing this new recovery method.
Jeff Roberts, Executive Director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition says governments must strive to create an atmosphere that encourages reasonable retention of documents, and clearly discourages the early destruction of documents.
Such an atmosphere, “might give the public more confidence that email retention policies are being followed and that certain records won’t just disappear because they might reveal something that an agency would rather keep under wraps,” Roberts said. “This type of thing has happened, at least at the local level. You might recall that a Poudre School District supervisor a few years ago instructed employees to delete emails related to a special needs student ‘to protect against an open-records request.’ Ironically, the child’s parents made that discovery by filing an open-records request.”
In regards to the claims made by Mr. Bradley, he asserted he was ordered to delete emails that were being created as a result of the ‘workflow’ of assembling a response to an open records request.
“Sometimes those process or workflow emails show something important the public ought to know about,” Roberts said.
Last year in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration came under heavy criticism from the public and the media for implementing an automatic purge of government emails after 90 days.
“Frustrated at the meager explanation and alarmed at the prospect of a virtual incineration of records, some lawmakers are looking to change state law to forbid the email purges, and government watchdog groups have demanded that the Cuomo administration rescind its policy,” the New York Times reported last March.
Governor Cuomo eventually adopted a new policy which abandoned automatic email deletion after 90 days.
Complete Colorado became aware of a significant problem with email retention policies after the Colorado Division of Insurance and the Office of Information Technology admitted that emails from a key player in a minor scandal involving then-Senator Mark Udall had been deleted just days after they were created. Those agencies insisted there was no method of email recovery.
Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll also wrote on the issue of Colorado government email retention, saying, “It’s a scandal that Colorado is so indifferent to the fate of such a large segment of documents that belong in the public domain.”
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