Cuomo calls for new policy after criticism of email purges

AP News
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Posted: Mar 13, 2015 7:03 PM

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for a new email retention policy for state leaders following criticism about his administration's practice of generally purging emails after 90 days.

The Democratic governor will meet with other top state officials to create a single email retention policy for all officials and government agencies, according to a statement from spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa.

The policy of automatically deleting official emails after only 90 days sparked concerns from government watchdogs and some lawmakers who said it was an affront to government accountability and transparency. On Friday several good-government groups urged Cuomo to require state emails to be kept for at least seven years.

The governor's email troubles come as Hillary Rodham Clinton faces questions over her handling of email correspondence during her tenure as secretary of state.

Cuomo's office said the retention policy dated back to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's administration, but Cuomo recently expanded it to cover most other state agencies. The system is staying in place ahead of the meeting, which Cuomo's office said would include representatives from the offices of the attorney general, the state comptroller and legislators.

"We believe the policy should honor transparency while maintaining efficiency," DeRosa said in her statement. The current policy says email will be saved when needed for litigation, for long-term projects or "potentially responsive" to public information requests.

Democratic Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, a critic of the deletions, said Cuomo's proposed is well-intentioned, but insufficient. He said an immediate halt to the practice is needed, that emails every day "are being deleted automatically that may prove relevant for future investigations."

Good government groups and transparency advocates argue that the policy violates the spirit of freedom of information laws, commonly known as FOIL in New York, by depriving the public of potentially important records.

"Realistically if records no longer exist, FOIL no longer applies," said Robert Freeman, executive director of the committee on public access.

Several public interest groups urged Cuomo on Friday to issue an executive order setting a seven-year retention standard, which is similar to one proposed on the federal level by the White House. The coalition includes Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters of New York, the New York Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause-New York.

"Gov. Cuomo has the unilateral authority to increase email transparency, and he should," the groups said in their statement.

Cuomo instituted a similar purge policy in 2007 when he was attorney general. Current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman suspended the practice this week.

"Attorney General Schneiderman is committed to openness, transparency and restoring the trust of New Yorkers in their government," Schneiderman Chief of Staff Micah Lasher wrote in an email to staff on Thursday.

The policy was widely expanded across the Cuomo administration when dozens of state agencies were brought under a single email system.

At a legislative hearing in February, Margaret Miller, the state's chief information officer, said 52 state organizations had upgraded and consolidated into one new cloud-based system that carries out the 90-day deletion policy reaffirmed by the administration in June 2013. The emails are deleted permanently, and can't be recalled, she said.

Miller testified that it was consistent with accepted practices elsewhere and was meant to encourage good behavior by state workers to address emails in a timely way.

O'Donnell and Sen. Liz Krueger, also a Democrat, have introduced legislation to make New York's email retention policy permanently preserve the records of policymakers, legislators and statewide officials, and keep those of other officials for at least seven years.

O'Donnell said state officials may not know for months or even years whether certain emails are critical for FOIL requests or lawsuits.

The New York Comptroller's Office, which audits state financial activities sometimes going back years, has "concerns about document retention policies that would limit access to information and make our audit and investigative work more difficult," spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman said.

The comptroller's office has a separate system with no automatic deletions where individuals can retain emails indefinitely, she said.