ST. LOUIS -- Staff members for Gov. Matt Blunt do not consider electronic communications to be public record and routinely purge e-mails from the state system, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday.
But the governor's office declined to discuss in detail what e-mails are being purged, how often or why, the newspaper said.
Spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said e-mails are not generally retained for very long. The practice of eliminating them may run counter to a provision of state law that says many correspondences and interoffice memos from state officials must be saved for up to three years.
Blunt was asked by the Post-Dispatch earlier this week why e-mails aren't routinely saved. "Nobody saves e-mails for three years," he said.
Many legal experts consider e-mails sent on government systems to be public under Missouri's "Sunshine Law." They have been the subject of records requests from residents and media outlets.
Saint Louis University political scientist Ken Warren, who has written books on administrative law and the handling of government records, said e-mails can be vital records of how state government operates.
"To say they don't keep records of their e-mails is absurd," Warren said. "Such communication needs to be kept in order to justify, if challenged, the decisions they've made."
Blunt's office disputes that e-mails are public record.
"There is no statute or case that requires the state to retain individual's e-mails as a public record," another Blunt spokesman, Rich Chrismer, said in a written statement. "However, even though they are not a public record, if we have e-mails that are relevant to a Sunshine [Law] request, we always provide them in compliance with the law."
The issue comes at a time when the state Republican Party is pursuing e-mails from other state officials. Blunt is a Republican.
The state GOP has used the Sunshine Law within the past year to obtain dozens of office e-mails from Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Attorney General Jay Nixon, both Democrats, on various issues.
The Republican Party is now haggling with Nixon because it wants more e-mails than his staff recently provided regarding their dealings with the state Ethics Commission.
Asked if e-mails by state employees are public record, state GOP spokesman Paul Sloca replied, "Of course they're public record."
Aside from its Sunshine Law, Missouri has a separate law that governs how long state records should be kept.
The record-retention mandate for the governor's office, last updated in 2001, stipulates that general correspondence and internal memos covering "management, financial and policy matters" must be retained for three years, or for 90 days after the completion of a state audit.
That 2001 update was signed by Blunt, who at the time was secretary of state and chairman of the commission.