Editorial: Preserving public records – The e-mail question

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 1, 2008

When does an order to destroy e-mail really mean something else? When Gov. Mike Easley says so, judging from a recent flap between the governor’s office and The News & Observer. Easley has gotten himself in a hole on this public-records issue, and his staff is digging him in deeper.
The controversy arose after the Raleigh newspaper reported on the failure of mental health care reform in North Carolina. Two days after the series of stories concluded, Easley ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to fire its public information officer, Debbie Crane. Crane is known, by name at least, by every newspaper in the state. For years she has e-mailed them state press releases on everything from new rabies cases to West Nile Virus warnings.
So when Crane found herself ousted, she knew exactly how to get the word out about what she considered an unethical practice. She told the News & Observer that the governor’s press office had given instructions to delete e-mail messages, to bypass the state’s public records law.
The governor’s office said that was untrue. The newspaper kept pushing with requests for public records. Finally, on Saturday, Easley attorney Andrew Vanore shared with the newspaper notes made by two public information officers about being told to destroy e-mail. One officer wrote: “emails ó more & more public records requests (blogs?) be careful w/emails; delete emails to and from gov office every day.”
That looks like clear-cut proof, but Vanore says it is not. According to a story in the News & Observer, Vanore says the notes don’t mean what they seem to say and, besides, the officers have not been deleting e-mails.
Is there room for that much misinterpretation in these communications? It seems unlikely. At stake is access to government information, and there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding about that. To a cynic, it appears Easley wants to clamp down on communications that may reveal problems he’d just as soon keep quiet ó like $400 million being wasted on mental health services. To someone more likely to give the benefit of the doubt, the situation still has Vanore and others directly contradicting notes taken by different agencies’ public information officers.
There are two issues here: (1) ordering the destruction of public records and (2) lying about it. Did Easley and his minions do those things? The answer may lie in the definition of “public records.” The state public records law includes a broad definition, including all documents, records and communications made or received in the transaction of public business. Despite the law, Easley wants to allow the destruction of e-mail messages that have “no administrative value” in the opinion of the receiver or sender. That’s a pretty closed circle. The public might have a different opinion about the information’s value ó if citizens ever get to see it. State law says they should. The governor should uphold the law, not subvert it.