Thursday, November 17, 2011

State government electronic records in the news

Two stories relating to the management and continued accessibility of state government records popped up on my radar screen earlier today. Both of them warrant watching; it doesn't seem as if either situation will be resolved any time soon.

The first involves gubernatorial records, an ever-present matter of interest and concern. Earlier today, the Boston Globe reported that during the last days of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's tenure as governor of Massachusetts, eleven of his high-ranking staffers used personal funds to purchase their state-supplied hard drives and laptops, staff replaced all of the other computers in the governor's office, and all Romney-era e-mail was deleted from the office's e-mail servers. When Deval Patrick, a Democrat, took office, he and his staffers found an electronic blank slate.

Romney's position is that staffers who purchased hardware did so openly and that he and his staffers complied with all records laws. It does seem that the Romney administration did transfer a substantial body of records to the Massachusetts Archives: according to the Globe, the the repository holds 700-800 boxes of paper records documenting the Romney administration. However, it's not clear whether these records include print copies of the e-mails. The Globe doesn't provide detailed information about them, and the Massachusetts Archives doesn't have an online catalog or detailed online finding aids.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees the Massachusetts Archives, told the Globe that the hardware purchases strike him as odd and that the gubernatorial e-mail should have come to the archives: "Electronic records are held to the same standard as paper records. There’s no question. They’re not in some lesser standard."

Romney's campaign manager asserts that the Patrick administration is making a stink about the hardware purchases, computer replacement, and e-mail deletion because it is acting as "an opposition research arm of the Obama reelection campaign." After the Globe story appeared this morning, he filed a state Freedom of Information Act request seeking "all email correspondence, phone logs, and visitor logs" documenting contacts between Patrick administration staffers and prominent Obama political advisers David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and Jim Messina. Governor Patrick’s chief legal counsel has stated that staff will "be happy to fulfill" this request.

I'm not an expert on Massachusetts records laws, so I'm going to have wait for the experts to weigh in on whether the actions of Governor Romney and his staff were legal. Do I wish that the e-mail had been preserved? Of course I do. I'm an archivist, and my job is to preserve records of enduring value and to provide access to them. Gubernatorial correspondence and internal memoranda, regardless of format, do have enduring value. Do I think that Governor Romney should be pilloried for destroying the e-mail? If he violated the law, I hope he gets what's coming to him. If he didn't, I hope that Governor Patrick and other Massachusetts politicians focus on strengthening laws concerning the retention and disposition of gubernatorial records.

Do I think that Governor Patrick brought up these issues in an effort to give President Obama a boost? I don't know. Patrick and Obama are close allies, so it's possible. However, I'm also under the impression that Governor Patrick has his own reasons for disliking Governor Romney, and I'm open to the possibility that he and his staffers are discussing the matter because they keep getting freedom of information requests for Romney-era records. I must admit that I am curious as to how well the Patrick administration is managing its own records.

The second relates to an outrage. As anyone who's been paying even the slightest attention to the American news media knows, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was recently arrested on charges that he sexually molested eight young boys. Two university administrators have been charged with perjury, and the university's president and football coach have lost their jobs.

Questions as to precisely what the president, the coach, and other university administrators knew about Sandusky and when they knew it are rampant. However, Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law, which was extensively revised in 2008, explicitly exempts most records created by Penn State, Lincoln University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. As a result, there is a distinct possibility that only those e-mails, phone records, and other Penn State records introduced in open court will be disclosed to the public -- unless, as the New York Times urged earlier today, the Pennsylvania legislature and governor move to lift this exemption.

Publicly funded universities in many other states -- New York included -- are subject to freedom of information laws. For what it's worth, I really don't see why Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln should be granted such sweeping exemptions, and I hope that Pennsylvania's law changes. At the very least, I hope that Penn State's new administrators recognize that openness and honesty are essential to restoring the university's good name and start releasing records of their own accord as soon as prosecutors permit them to do so.

Yes, I know that Penn State is going to be hit with civil lawsuit after civil lawsuit and that its lawyers would probably jump for joy if a fire or flood destroyed a ton of university records. However, the lawsuits will come and the cost of settling them will be staggeringly high no matter what the university does.

Of course, Penn State is not the only entity that has relevant records: Sandusky met the boys he is accused of sexually assaulting through The Second Mile, a charitable organization that he founded. However, earlier today, the New York Times reported that investigators have yet to locate some important Second Mile records:
Officials at the Second Mile . . . reported that several years of the organization’s records were missing and had perhaps been stolen. The missing files, investigators worry, may limit their ability to determine if Sandusky used charity resources — expense accounts, travel, gifts — to recruit new victims, or even buy their silence . . . .

Much of the [charity's] older paperwork was stored at an off-site records facility. The travel and expense records, for instance, had been sent over several years earlier. But select members of the charity’s board of directors were alarmed to learn recently that when the records facility went to retrieve them, some of those records — from about 2000 to 2003 — were missing.

. . . . Subsequently, the [Second Mile] foundation located apparently misfiled records from one of the years, but the rest seem to have disappeared.
As awful as the Sandusky-Penn State situation currently appears, I can't help but think that we've seen only the tip of the iceberg. All the more reason to be as honest and as open as possible. The sooner the truth comes out, the sooner the victims can focus on rebuilding their lives and the sooner Penn State can focus on rebuilding itself.


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Anonymous said...

The records center that stores Second Mile records is owned by a regional as well as a state director of the Second Mile. The Second Mile annual reports will confirm this.