Abbott tweaks controversial email destruction policy

By David Saleh Rauf
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published Jan. 28, 2015

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott has changed a controversial policy put in place by former Gov. Rick Perry to delete emails every seven days, extending the period to officially scrub emails to 30 days.

An Abbott spokeswoman said the governor initiated the new the record retention rule on his first day on the job, Jan 20.

Along with the change to Perry’s email policy, Abbott has created a new position in his office to handle all open records requests. Jordan Hale, the public information coordinator for Abbott when he was attorney general, was tapped to fill the role that will shepherd from beginning to end every open requests filed with the governor’s office

An Abbott spokeswoman said the email policy change and creation of a new open records chief are indicative of the governor’s commitment to transparency, a pledge he made often on the campaign trail.

“These actions send a clear signal that he will preside over an open and accountable administration,” said spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.

Combined, the two moves will allow Abbott’s administration to immediately draw contrasts on the handling of open records with Perry’s regime, whose email retention policy was often the subject of criticism over the years.

In 2008, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue a complaint over Perry’s email policy, kicking the case over to then-attorney general Abbott. Joe Larsen, an open records lawyer who filed the complaint alleging Perry’s policy violated state public information laws, said Abbott ultimately deemed the seven-day practice as legit because Perry’s staff was maintaining hard copies of emails deemed to be public records.

Irked by the policy, a government transparency advocate in Wisconsin even went so far as to create a computer program in 2011 to automatically initiate open records requests twice weekly as a way to stifle the routine of destroying emails every seven days. But it served only as a temporary halt to the Perry policy, Larsen said.

Perry’s staff was required to determine which emails should be considered public records and print or save them within the seven-day threshold before hitting delete. Under state law, only correspondence deemed to have zero public interest is not considered a public record.

Chasse, the Abbott spokeswoman, said the governor’s office also plans to keep hard copies of important emails or will have them stored on state servers. The only change, Chasse said, is moving from a seven day to a 30 day retention policy.

Larsen, the open records lawyer, said he thinks that still is not good enough. He argues substantive emails need to be maintained digitally for at least two years.

“Thirty days still isn’t sufficient,” he said.