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ANALYSIS: Nixon not using e-mail archive system

Sunday, December 21, 2008 | 7:53 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov.-elect Jay Nixon is not using Missouri’s new comprehensive, e-mail archiving system that makes messages easy to find and provides e-mails in response to public records requests.

The reason, essentially, is it would be inconvenient for Nixon’s transition team to start using it before he becomes governor.

Under normal circumstances, the computer servers used to send and receive e-mails by an incoming governor might not be an issue.

But Nixon’s situation is far from usual. Special investigators for his current office of attorney general are suing the outgoing occupant of his new office — Gov. Matt Blunt — to determine if the governor’s e-mail practices have complied with Missouri laws.

Of specific concern is whether the governor’s office deleted some e-mails last year that should have been preserved under Missouri’s document-retention and open-records laws.

A hearing is scheduled Tuesday in Cole County Circuit Court. A trial is scheduled for Jan. 5 — the beginning of Blunt’s final full work week.

The e-mail controversy dates to September 2007, when the Springfield News-Leader published a column stating it had been told by the governor’s office that certain e-mails requested under the Sunshine Law didn’t exist, although the newspaper had independently obtained one.

The next month, former governor’s office attorney Scott Eckersley said he had been fired after trying to draw colleagues’ attention to Missouri’s e-mail retention requirements and Sunshine Law. The governor’s office insists Eckersley was fired for justifiable reasons.

In November 2007, Nixon announced he was appointing special investigators to look into Blunt’s office while Blunt announced his support for a system to permanently save all e-mails.

During the investigation of his office, Blunt has pointed out that the attorney general’s office has not adopted the same comprehensive e-mail archiving system he now uses.

As governor-elect, Nixon normally would have begun using the e-mail servers maintained by the Office of Administration, which operates the archiving software. Instead, records obtained by The Associated Press under the Sunshine Law show that Nixon’s gubernatorial transition team chose to use the e-mail system run by the attorney general’s office.

Nixon spokesman Oren Shur said it was a practical decision. Because many of the administrative support staff for the gubernatorial transition team came from the attorney general’s office, Shur said it made sense for them to use an e-mail program with which they already were familiar.

“This allowed the transition team to get up and running immediately,” Shur said.

Unlike the attorney general’s system, the one now used by the governor’s office archives every e-mail that gets sent or received, even if it is not important enough to be required by law to be kept.

The attorney general’s office relies on an e-mail retention system somewhat similar to what existed in the governor’s office a year ago. Essentially, each employee decides on a case-by-case basis whether each e-mail should be saved as a public record or deleted. A computer server captures all e-mails on backup tapes, but those tapes are kept only for a short while and then reused.

The backup tapes aren’t typically relied upon to comply with Sunshine Law requests. Rather, they are more of a disaster-recovery system in case the computers crash.

At question in the investigation into Blunt’s office is whether employees actually followed any policy in saving or deleting e-mails, or simply deleted at will.

Attorney general’s office spokesman Scott Holste said employees using its e-mail system either print or save to a CD all e-mails that qualify to be saved as public records.

“We follow the law in retaining the documents that need to be retained,” Holste said.

But that approach depends on a human decision. And it leaves little way of knowing whether someone deleted an e-mail that really should have been saved.

Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said Missourians should be troubled that Nixon’s gubernatorial transition team is not using the more thorough e-mail retention system run by the Office of Administration.

“If saving e-mails is a real concern, then Missourians ought to be very concerned that Jay Nixon has not been saving e-mails in the attorney general’s office or his transition office,” Robinson said.

Although most of the executive branch uses the e-mail archiving system run by the Office of Administration, Nixon’s office is not alone in using a different system. The treasurer, secretary of state and auditor are not on the system. Nor are the departments of Conservation, Transportation, Natural Resources and the Highway Patrol.

The latter two have made a $245,000 budget request to switch to the Office of Administration’s e-mail system in the next fiscal year. It is projected to cost the state $486,000 to run the e-mail archiving system for all participating offices.

Since Nixon will be inheriting the computer equipment used by Blunt, he intends to use the Office of Administration’s e-mail servers and archiving system when he becomes governor on Jan. 12, Shur said.

But for how long he will do so is unclear.

“Moving forward, the governor’s office will determine whether there is a more cost-effective way to achieve the same result,” Shur said in an e-mailed statement.

 

 


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