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Gov. Wolf: What his emails do and don't show, and a look at email access fights for other politicians

Written by Ed Mahon, York Daily Record | Mar 30, 2015 7:45 AM
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(Harrisburg) -- Gov. Tom Wolf did a lot in his first two weeks as governor.

He banned gifts for executive branch employees. He removed Erik Arneson as the executive director of the Office of Open Records and got sued for it. He worked on his first budget. He reinstated a moratorium on new leases for natural gas drilling in state parks and forests.

But there's one thing he didn't do much of: Send emails that his office considers a public record.

The Wolf administration responded to a Right-to-Know request from the York Daily Record/Sunday News for all emails sent and received by Wolf from Jan. 20 through Feb. 3 with 110 pages of documents. The response included four emails sent by Wolf. The body of each was fewer than five words.

Wolf has talked often about the importance of transparency. He brought the former executive director of the Office of Open Records, Terry Mutchler, to speak to him, staff and some cabinet members about the open records law the day after his inauguration. He has posted work calendar information online.

Mutchler wrote in a recent op-ed that the new Democratic governor "is setting the pace to become the most open administration in state history, if not the country."

In theory, one way the public could see how Wolf handles the job is through his emails. But, whatever the reason, for at least the first two weeks or so he spent as governor, Wolf didn't leave much of a public record trail in emails he sent. Jeff Sheridan, who worked on Wolf's campaign and is now the governor's press secretary, said Wolf just doesn't use email often.

"I honestly rarely talk to him other than in person or over the phone," Sheridan said.

Sheridan said he's not aware of the governor relying on any other form of electronic communication.

Here's a look at some emails that were provided, what they do and don't show, and how access to emails has created conflict for other politicians.

Emails sent by Wolf

In a March 13 letter responding to the Right-to-Know request, Jo Reichard, who was listed as the agency open records officer, wrote that the governor's office "withheld information from the responsive records that are exempt from disclosure by law ."

The list of reasons why information was withheld covered exemptions for attorney-client privilege, personal security, personal email addresses and phone numbers, certain records relating to an agency employee, and pre-decisional information.

Some information was redacted, while other records were withheld entirely.

Jessica Diaz, deputy general counsel, said 39 records were withheld entirely, including five communications the office determined to have been personal in nature and another five communications that "were courtesies sent to an employee whose wife had surgery and contained medical information."

Of the remaining 29 communications considered exempt, 12 "captured pre-decisional deliberations," she said in an email Friday.

In the documents provided, most of the items sent to Wolf had to do with weather preparations and arrangements for meetings or events. The emails did not include any substantive discussions of the Pennsylvania budget, the removal of the Office of Open Records executive director or other policy matters. Wolf did receive an email from a person who pointed out an example of "government waste," but the documents provided did not include any follow-up emails or discussion.

In the provided documents, Wolf wrote four emails, including two that were part of the same chain. All were responses to other emails.

On Wednesday, Jan. 21, the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency sent Wolf an email about preparations for possible snow that weekend.

"Thanks Rick," Wolf wrote at 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22 to Richard D. Flinn Jr.

The other emails sent from Wolf's account were similar.

Redacted email addresses and phone numbers

When Wolf ran for governor, his campaign criticized Republican Gov. Tom Corbett for denying access to information.

"Tom Corbett refused to release his schedule, his staff email addresses, his staff phone numbers, and his cabinet secretaries resumes. Tom Corbett has even blocked the public from attending his public events including news conferences," Beth Melena, a campaign spokeswoman who now works for the governor's office, said in an Aug. 1 news release titled "Tom Corbett Has Run The Least Transparent Administration in History."

Phone number and email addresses appear to be redacted in emails the Wolf administration provided in response to the Right-to-Know request.

A Commonwealth Court decision in April 2013 ruled that all agency-issued email addresses for the lieutenant governor did not have to be public.

Other court cases established that certain phone numbers and email addresses do not have to be public, according to Paula K. Knudsen, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. She said it is common for agencies to redact that information, but she said they generally could still choose to release it.

In the Wolf administration's March 13 response to the Right-to-Know request, when it came to exempting email addresses and phone numbers, it cited the same section of the open records law that the Corbett administration cited in denying access to that information.

Sheridan said the issues aren't comparable, because the Corbett administration denied requests that specifically asked for email addresses and phone numbers.

"This is a separate situation," Sheridan said.

Other politicians

"Whether you look at the national, state or local scene, you see that emails are just a huge issue in relation to transparency and government," said Mutchler, the first executive director of the Office of Open Records who now leads a transparency practice group at Pepper Hamilton law firm in Philadelphia.

Here's a look at some previous email issues in Pennsylvania and nationally.

•Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell was known as someone who didn't use email, instead writing things out by hand, Mutchler said.

In January 2010, a reporter for The New York Times requested emails and text messages sent or received by several people, including current and former employees, in the Rendell administration over a six-month period.

The governor's office partially granted and partially denied the request, stating that the request wasn't sufficiently specific. The newspaper appealed, saying, among other things that there were "enormous gaps in the emails produced" and that the governor's office had too narrow of a definition of what counts for public or business activity, according to Office of Open Records documents.

The Office of Open Records gave a mixed decision, which denied records of a personal business or activity. The decision also said the governor's office appeared to make a distinction between public "business" and "activities," and that both should be provided.

•In February 2011, Associated Press reporter Mark Scolforo requested all emails sent by then-Gov. Tom Corbett since his inauguration the month before, along with other documents.

The governor's office wrote, in part, that emails that reflected internal predecisional deliberations were exempt and not produced.

The Office of Open Records later ruled that the 17 emails that were withheld were done so properly. The office also ruled in the governor's favor for a redacted email.

•The New York Times reported in July 2012 that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo does not use email, preferring the telephone instead. BlackBerry PIN messages, which aren't logged by the governor's office or the maker of the BlackBerry, are often used for written communications between the governor and his aides, according to the 2012 article.

•In August 2014, Corbett told reporters that he rarely uses email because he knew they would be requested through the Right-to-Know Law, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. Corbett said he uses the telephone instead and needs the freedom to be able to express opinions that he may later want to change, according to that August article. He said he deleted his emails about once a week.

The Post-Gazette later sued the state in Commonwealth Court over its email practices. The case is ongoing.

•Jeb Bush, a presumptive Republican presidential candidate, recently posted online nearly 280,000 emails from a personal account he used while governor of Florida, a spokeswoman told PunditFact, part of the PolitiFact news operation.

Democratic strategist James Carville criticized Bush, saying he only "released 10 percent of his emails," a claim that PunditFact ruled false, saying that most of Bush's government account emails are available to the public. The article notes that, for the private email account, Bush decided which ones would be made public and which ones would not be.

•Hillary Clinton has come under criticism for relying on a personal email address and server while she was the U.S. secretary of state. Earlier this month, Clinton said she provided work-related emails to the Department of State to be released, according to The Associated Press. The department has said they will be posted online after a review.

•Then there's the approach of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. During a March 8 episode of NBC's "Meet the Press," the Republican from South Carolina said he has never sent an email.

Contact Ed Mahon at 717-771-2089.

Calendar vs. emails

On Jan. 28, Gov. Tom Wolf's administration said in a news release that Wolf would be releasing his full work calendar online.

Wolf's press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, said in a Jan. 28 email that the "information released will be equivalent to what would be obtained from a right to know request released proactively. Some private information will be redacted."

For instance, phone numbers appear to be blacked out in the publicly released work calendar. Phone numbers also appear to be blacked out in the emails obtained through a Right-to-Know request.

But there appears to be a difference in how info on Jan. 29 was treated.

Wolf's publicly released work calendar for that day describes a press event at Benjamin Rush State Park and other events.

It has no entry listed between a 2:15 p.m. to 3 p.m. meeting with the president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and a 6:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. travel meeting with President Barack Obama. There are no black marks to indicate any information was redacted for that time period.

But a schedule that was emailed to Wolf for Jan. 29, obtained through the Right-to-Know email request, shows some blacked out information for the period between the Thomas Jefferson University and Obama events.

On Wednesday, Sheridan said the information provided in the email was sent the night before the meeting, before the White House informed the Wolf administration that certain information should not be public for security reasons. The information was related to where Wolf was scheduled to meet the president, Sheridan said.

The information was removed from Wolf's calendar, Sheridan said.

Wolf's emails

Related

From the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette story: Corbett defends education adviser who resigned amid questions about duties.

From NBC News: Lindsey Graham: I've Never Sent an Email

From PunditFact: Much more than 10 percent of Jeb Bush's emails are public record.

From The New York Times: Despite Cuomo's Vow of Sunlight, a Bid to Keep Aides' E-Mail in the Dark

Check out all of Gov. Tom Wolf's work calendars

Erik Arneson vs. Gov. Tom Wolf, explained with four court cases

Vox has a rundown of the Hillary Clinton email controversy, as well as email controversies involving other politicians.

York Township Right-to-Know case over public officials' emails has statewide influence

Also of interest

Meckley resigns as York City schools recovery officer.

Gov. Tom Wolf's sales tax expansion would cover child care, nursing homes and more.

Gov. Tom Wolf backs off campaign tax plan.

Wolf Tracker.

Play the Pa. sales tax revenue match game.


This article comes to us through a partnership between the York Daily Record and WITF. 

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