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System purged trove of e-mails

Romney, Swift, Cellucci data lost; Computer deletions made automatically

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 7, 2011
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WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands of e-mails authored or received by Cabinet secretaries in the last three Republican gubernatorial administrations were automatically wiped off state computers after the officials left office, destroying a huge trove of public records about major decisions of state government.

Computer systems erased the e-mails from the administrations of Acting Governor Jane Swift and Governors Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney because state officials did not store the contents of their accounts by backing them up on central computers, according to state officials. In the case of the Romney administration, the automatic deletions occurred despite state guidelines that were updated in 2004 that require certain electronic records be preserved.

That includes at least four of Romney’s top Cabinet officials. Thirty days after they left office, their e-mails were automatically purged from the state’s central computers, wiping out records of decisions on an array of sensitive topics, from health care to raising state revenues.

Romney Cabinet secretaries said in interviews that they were never told by administration or state technology officials that they needed to take any steps to protect their e-mails.

“No one came over to me and said, ‘Do this, do this, do this, do this,’ ’’ said Tim Murphy, who as secretary of Health and Human Services helped formulate the state’s landmark health care law. “I just turned my computer off and went home. That’s the end of it.’’

The gaps in public records came to light as attention has turned to Romney’s years as governor, a cornerstone of his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. The Globe filed formal requests in recent weeks to review e-mails under the state Public Records Law.

The loss of records from the Romney administration may be more extensive than in the Swift and Cellucci administrations. The Globe reported last month that aides in Romney’s executive office also took the unusual step of buying individual desktop computer hard drives and taking them home, removing a large volume of material relating to Romney’s deliberations. That was not done by executive office aides for Swift and Cellucci.

Records maintained by the executive office of the governor can be considered exempt from public release under a 1997 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, which says “the governor is not explicitly included’’ in the state Public Records Law. The Reuters news agency reported this week that breaking an office computer lease by using the individual hard drives cost state taxpayers $100,000.

Paper printouts of some Romney executive office e-mails may still exist. About 630 boxes of paper records were transferred by the governor’s staff to the state archives in Dorchester. Precisely what is contained in those files is not yet known; state officials have sorted through only about one-third of the material to determine which documents are suitable for public review.

Secretary of State William Galvin has said he will make available the remaining 460 boxes - after case-by-case reviews to screen for confidential or exempt material - as people ask for them.

“Governor Romney followed precedent in the handling of documents in his office and there was nothing unusual about it,’’ said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “He voluntarily transferred 700 boxes of documents to the state archives, more than any prior governor.’’

At least 150 additional boxes of Romney budget documents are stored in the basement of the State House. But many of those are not labeled and there is no index, making them difficult to sift through, according to officials in the administration of Romney’s successor, Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat.

The public records exemption for the governor’s executive office does not apply to Cabinet secretaries and their departments. State guidelines, issued by the secretary of state’s office, say e-mails created or received by such government employees are public records.

Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said no one person is charged with ensuring each Cabinet member knows what is supposed to be preserved. Ultimately, he said, it is up to them and their offices to make sure they comply.

Romney Cabinet secretaries contacted by the Globe said there did not appear to be a widespread effort within the Romney administration to educate them on how the laws applied to their e-mails.

“This is a really critical area for attention and it’s clear things are falling through the cracks,’’ said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a group that advocates for more access to records. “It’s a failure of the system to work properly, not a failure of the individuals in office.’’

Massachusetts has issued guidelines for preserving electronic records since the 1990s, although enforcement actions have been rare. After a top mayoral aide in Boston deleted thousands of e-mails, Galvin asked the attorney general in 2009 to review the case for possible criminal prosecution. But Attorney General Martha Coakley concluded the deletions did not constitute a deliberate attempt to skirt the public records law. At the same time, she recommended that the law, which dates to 1851, be updated to more clearly address e-mail correspondence. So far, the Legislature has not updated the statute.

In other states, the preservation of electronic records has been a higher priority. Florida, for example, set up a special Office for Open Government whose mission is to educate employees of the governor’s office and other state agencies on public records, including preservation of emails.

Across the nation, policies for preserving electronic records vary significantly, open-government advocates say.

“Retention policies are all over the map,’’ said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri.

Bunting pointed to the state of Texas, where Governor Rick Perry’s office has for years deleted e-mails after only seven days. It keeps copies of e-mails that the governor’s office believes are subject to that state’s public records law, but Perry’s office has maintained that doesn’t include any e-mails reflecting his views or staff discussions, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Among top Romney state administration officials whose records were deleted automatically were two secretaries of health and human services - Ron Preston and Murphy - and his secretary of commonwealth development, Doug Foy. Romney’s first administration and finance secretary, Eric Kriss, also has no e-mail on state computers, according to officials.

Foy, who worked on a controversial proposal to join a regional cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases that Romney ultimately rejected, said he did not know why his e-mail records were gone.

“I assumed it was always available, and it was certainly available after I left,’’ he said. “I am unaware of any formal policy and certainly there was no action that we were expected to do or did in deleting anything.’’

State servers do still contain about 5,000 e-mails from the account of former administration and finance secretary Thomas Trimarco. His e-mail account mistakenly was never disabled after he left the office, according to Patrick officials.

The state has one central server, which captures incoming and outgoing e-mail for all state employees. But that server purges e-mails 30 days after an employee’s account is shut off. Unless the e-mail is preserved on a local server, burned onto a disc, or printed out, it is lost. The e-mails would also be accessible on a computer hard drive, but the computers that Romney Cabinet members were using were swapped out for new ones as part of the transition to the Patrick administration.

Patrick officials could not definitively say whether some of the e-mails would exist somewhere in paper form, although some Cabinet secretaries said that wasn’t the case.

“Why would you print them out?’’ Foy said. “That just strikes me as nuts.’’

Galvin said the outgoing Romney officials may not be at fault. They did not destroy the documents, and the e-mails were lost through routine computer server maintenance, he noted.

“They didn’t do anything to destroy it, and they left everything there,’’ Galvin said.

He also said he was surprised that the incoming Patrick administration officials would not have asked the outgoing Romney officials about their e-mail policies, and how the e-mails were being preserved.

“The premise seems to be no transition with electronic records,’’ Galvin said. “I find that impossible to believe. Of course you’d ask.’’

Patrick spokeswoman Kimberly Haberlin said, “Our focus during the transition was on pending policy and budget issues so that the new administration was prepared to take over.’’

Globe staff writer Donovan Slack contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at

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