By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the final weeks of Mitt Romney's term as Massachusetts governor, his office sought and received permission to destroy 150 boxes of paper records of his tenure, according to documents obtained by Reuters.
Officials could not immediately confirm whether the paper documents he sought to eliminate were in fact destroyed and his spokeswoman said he had followed precedent and the law in dealing with his records when his term ended in 2007.
State officials had earlier said Romney, now a leading contender to be the Republican presidential candidate, spent nearly $100,000 in state funds to replace computers in his office as part of an effort to keep his records secret before he handed over to his Democratic party successor, Deval Patrick.
Among paper records which Romney was granted permission to destroy were boxes whose labels indicated they contained material relating to criminal pardons and commutations and what are described as "Litigation Files (closed)."
Files in these categories which Romney was granted permission to destroy covered the years 1991-2006, which meant that they covered records generated by governors before Romney and also during Romney's 2003-2007 term.
Also included were boxes containing material generated only during Romney's tenure, including requests by individuals for appointments, a card index containing information about a summer job program and boxes described as containing a "Status Investigation File." The was no indication of what the investigation file contained.
Files with papers documenting pardons, official investigations, litigation and even internship programs have in some cases raised issues that caused political embarrassment for people running for office.
A former Massachusetts political operative, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said state office holders began to take precautions to cleanse their official files after John Kerry, now a U.S. Senator, deposited in the state archives uncensored records of his term as Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor in the early 1980s. They were later exploited by his political enemies.
REUTERS FOIA REQUEST
The Massachusetts State Archives released details of Romney's requests to destroy records earlier this week in response to a request from Reuters under the state's freedom of information law.
The records include an official form, signed by state officials on October 4, 2006, indicating that state records authorities approved Romney's request to destroy records boxes listed in a request submitted to the State Archives on September 20, 2006 by Brian Leske, Governor Romney's chief legal counsel.
In response to an inquiry by Reuters, his spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the former governor "followed precedent in the handling of documents in his office and there was nothing unusual about it.
"It was all done in accordance with the law, and approved by an independent board overseen by the Democratic Secretary of State. Additionally, he voluntarily transferred 700 boxes of documents to the state archives, more than any prior governor," Saul said.
Romney's office made plans to destroy many of the paper and electronic records in the final months of his governorship.
Shortly before he left office in January 2007, Romney's staff spent $205,000 in taxpayer funds on a three-year lease on new computers for the governor's office. To do this, Romney aides broke an earlier three-year lease that still had 18 months to run and provided the same number of computers to the state for $108,000 -- $97,000 less than the cost of the new lease.
Eleven of Romney's gubernatorial aides also were allowed to purchase the hard drives of the computers the state had leased for them and a central computer server in which governors' office emails were routinely stored was also wiped clean before Romney left office.
Massachusetts officials say they have no basis to believe that Romney's staff violated any state laws or policies in removing his administration's records.
They acknowledge, however, that state law on maintaining and disclosing official records is vague and has not been updated to deal with issues related to digital records and other modern technology.
Romney's spokespeople emphasize that he followed the law and precedent in deleting the emails, installing new computers in the governor's office and buying up hard drives.
Romney's aides have also insisted that other governors had engaged in similar records cleanups.
However, Theresa Dolan, former director of administration for the governor's office, said that in her 23 years as an aide to successive governors "no one had ever inquired about, or expressed the desire" to purchase their computer hard drives before Romney's tenure.
A letter from the Governor's office disclosed by state officials in response to Reuters' disclosure request shows that within months of Romney taking office, his aides were laying legal ground work for sweeping efforts to control access to records generated by the governor's office during his tenure.
In a five-page letter dated June 19, 2003, Judi Goldberg, deputy legal counsel to Romney, told a state archives official that Romney, citing a 1997 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, asserted that records generated by the governor's office are not public records under state law. Goldberg also said that the state had no authority to "require the Governor to archive documents in a particular manner or location."
Boxes of records which Romney did deposit in the State Archives carry prominent "disclaimer" notices on the outside asserting that although the governor's office had decided to "voluntarily" send them to archives, they did not constitute public records under Massachusetts state law.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; editing by David Storey)