E-mail hypocrisy

Thursday, September 13, 2007

By Tony Messenger

Ed Martin's a big fan of government openness if it serves his political purposes.

But ask Gov. Matt Blunt's chief of staff for his public records, and Martin sings a different tune.

That's what he did last week when I asked to see his e-mails from the week of Aug. 20. That was the week that the Republican Party and various pro-life groups went on the offensive over Planned Parenthood's lawsuit against the state. Planned Parenthood sought and obtained a temporary injunction against a new abortion law pushed by the governor. Backers of the law immediately started a PR blitz to have Attorney General Jay Nixon removed from the case. Nixon, who is running for governor against Blunt, has received campaign donations from Planned Parenthood.

It turns out that some of the work by pro-life activists was coordinated by Martin, while he was on the clock working for the state.

Click to learn more...

So says an e-mail Martin sent at 9:23 the night of the 20th from his taxpayer-provided ed.martin@mo.gov e-mail account.

[StartDouble]This lawsuit has the potential of bringing down the a2a program as well as the other parts of 1055. We need to mobilize the supporters -- to get Nixon off the case and get a new lawyer," says the e-mail, which was sent to a couple of pro-life advocates. "Please have people write letters and call Nixon and the press. We need you to put out press statements asap. This is a huge battle."

The e-mail was sent to me by one of the pro-life advocates who ended up receiving it. When I received it, I wanted to see if there were more like it, so I filed a Sunshine Law request with the governor's office.

Blunt's deputy general counsel, Scott Eckersly, responded to my request for public documents by saying there were no such e-mails.

But what about the one I already had?

I e-mailed Martin to ask him about it.

"It sure looks like an e-mail from me," he said, via e-mail. Martin e-mails a lot. Hundreds of times a day, he said.

He doesn't save those records. And that's par for the course for the governor's office, according to Blunt spokesman Rich Chrismer.

"None of Ed's emails on this topic are or were available anywhere," Chrismer wrote in an e-mail. "Many employees receive and send hundreds of emails every day and keeping all emails would risk slowing down or shutting down our system. Perhaps you have received alerts or warnings about the limited space of your email account. I know I have. It is not efficient to keep hundreds of emails which can quickly grow to thousands and tens of thousands of emails if one does not use email efficiently."

Indeed, I have received such e-mail warnings. But I'm also aware that as many companies do, my company archives old e-mails on a server or backup tape somewhere. So, too, do most government organizations. They do so because it's the policy of the state to do precisely that.

"Generally speaking, the custodian of records should be able to retrieve them from another location," said Scott Holste, spokesman for Attorney General Jay Nixon.

Holste, of course, had the same issue I had with Martin's original e-mail. Much as the governor's office did in encouraging the Highway Patrol to change its public statement on the Taum Sauk reservoir collapse to be more critical of Nixon, Martin's e-mail mixes partisan campaigning with the process of doing his state job. Martin was using public funds for partisan political purposes.

That's not the way the chief of staff sees it, of course.

He says, via e-mail, that it's appropriate for him to contact people and organizations who are "pursuing policy aims." And in another e-mail, he refers to the process as "similar to my experience with any significant effort. ... Part of the job, I suppose, to keep coalitions informed and focused."

OK. I'll play along. Let's assume for a moment Martin is right. He's just doing his job.

If, indeed, his e-mail encouraging private groups to lobby Nixon to get off the case is just part of doing the state's business, then why isn't the record public? And why aren't the other e-mails he most likely sent on the matter being made available? Why is he systematically destroying public records? What is Martin hiding?

Indeed, if the e-mails are legitimate state business, then according to the Sunshine Law, they're public. And according to Section 109 of the Missouri Revised Statutes and the state's official policy on retention of records, they ought to be maintained as public records for three years. That policy, by the way, applies explicitly to e-mails. Three years is the standard for general correspondence like the kind Martin sent out via e-mail. These were not e-mails about buying Girl Scout cookies. These were, according to Martin, official state business. He was "pursuing policy aims." Further, the governor's office has its own records retention policy that specifically deals with general correspondence related to management, financial and policy matters. That policy also calls for records to be retained for three years, or 90 days after an audit. The policy should be familiar to Martin's boss, Governor Blunt. As secretary of state, Blunt was the chairman of the State Records Commission that approved the policy in June 2002.

In Martin's case, this isn't some small-time bureaucrat who's run afoul of complicated public records law. Martin, a lawyer, is leading the governor's charge in criticizing the Appellate Judicial Commission for not being open enough about its procedure for choosing the next Supreme Court judge. But his criticisms lose their luster when it turns out he's only a believer in open records when they help bolster the political case he's trying to make.

The conundrum for the governor's chief of staff is that in this battle over public records, he loses either way.

If we believe Martin, and he's doing the state's business when he e-mails hundreds of times a day, then he's also violating the state's policies on records retention hundreds of times a day.

And so is the rest of the governor's office, if spokesman Chrismer's stance applies to them.

And if we don't believe Martin's stance on his e-mail, then he's doing political business on the state's dime, and that shouldn't be acceptable no matter which party is in residence in the governor's mansion.

Either way, somebody's got some explaining to do.

Tony Messenger is the editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo) News-Leader. E-mail: tmessenger@news-leader.com.<I>;

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: