S.C. governor's use of private e-mails for public business could mean scrutiny for other elected officials
COLUMBIA, S.C., Aug 01, 2009 (McClatchy Newspapers - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) -- Former staffers for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said they routinely used private e-mail accounts to discuss sensitive political and policy decisions with Sanford.
The governor's office denies the practice was used to shield those communications from the public.
The state's Freedom of Information Act makes any discussion of state business on state computers a public document.
Sanford's office included 174 e-mails from his private account among nearly 3,900 pages of messages obtained by The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., through state open-records laws last month.
But the disclosed e-mails contained little discussion of state business between staff and Sanford, and mostly dealt with daily news stories and other media-related issues. Sanford sent or received about 230 e-mails a month over the 13-month period contained in the request.
Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the office does not regularly use private e-mail to avoid open-records laws and most decisions are made in face-to-face meetings or over the phone.
But former Sanford spokesman Will Folks, now editor of FITSnews.com, said he checked his private e-mail at least 10 times a day while with the governor.
"That's where I was getting the vast majority of political e-mails," Folks said.
Those e-mails included polling and other data from Sanford's Maryland-based consultant, Jon Lerner, that influenced policy decisions, Folks said, adding "most of his decision-making on bills" was done through e-mail.
Sanford considers the day "a ceremonial waste of time," Folks said, and often worked late into the evening by phone and e-mail.
Another former staffer, who did not want to be identified, had to create a private e-mail account after joining the governor's office. The staffer used the account to communicate with Sanford about state business.
Sawyer, the governor's spokesman, said the office has fully complied with state open-record laws. Sanford's attorneys searched his private account and pulled out anything related to state business among what they found, Sawyer said.
"Sometimes it's a matter of logistics," Sawyer said of why Sanford used his private account. "We did what we did in the interest of transparency. . . . We turned it over." Folks agrees it was not the policy of the office to use private e-mail. But it was the practice, he said.
"(Former Chief of Staff) Henry White laid out very clearly what should and shouldn't be done," Folks said. "Unfortunately, we didn't listen to him." The use of private e-mail accounts for public business has raised questions about Freedom of Information law enforcement and open government among watchdog groups.
And Sanford's disclosure of using private e-mails for public business could open the door for scrutiny of other elected officials.
"The fact that there is any business being conducted (on private e-mail accounts) at all is a problem," said Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council.
The group has pushed for more government transparency and better compliance with open-records laws.
Prompted by Sanford's disclosure, Landess said her group will ask other state government leaders to turn over private e-mails that contain public business.
"We're looking at who makes the decisions," Landess said. "We want to know how systemic it is." The issue is at the leading edge of open-records disputes across the country. According to a report by The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, there are many pending suits, but the law is not settled.
The Detroit Free Press won a lawsuit, and a Pulitzer Prize, for pursuing former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's text messages. Those messages proved perjury and earned Kilpatrick jail time.
But an appeals court in Texas reversed an early victory in the Dallas Morning News' attempt to inspect then-mayor Laura Miller's personal BlackBerry e-mails.
South Carolina includes e-mail among communications subject to open-records laws. But questions remain about whether the public can inspect private accounts if they are used for public business.
The governor does not have to allow review of his private e-mail, Sawyer said.
Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said his group thinks such messages are subject to public-records scrutiny.
Mark Plowden, spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, said the office is unaware of any S.C. court precedents. McMaster has not been asked to draft an opinion on the subject, Plowden said.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Landess thinks a handful of court cases back the Policy Council position that public business is always subject to open-records requests.
The Policy Council is waiting to see what kind of response it receives before reacting, Landess said. She hoped government officials would be more forthcoming with all public-record requests, and in particular, not use broad exemptions _ such as economic-development details _ to withhold documents.
"It's clearly designed to keep it off of the books," Landess said of using private e-mail. "What chance does the average citizen have to see this stuff? It's not on the public to ask in the right way." ___ (c) 2009, The State (Columbia, S.C.).
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