Promises, promises: Records shielded by candidates

By Stephen Braun

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30 2011 5:00 p.m. MST

Editor's note — An occasional look at political promises and how well they are kept.

WASHINGTON — In the final weeks of Mitt Romney's term as Massachusetts governor, a small team of aides combed through statehouse filing cabinets. They filled more than 630 cartons with papers destined for the state archives as the primary documentary legacy of his administration. One floor, though, was almost completely off limits to them: Romney's inner sanctum, his third-floor office.

The former legislative affairs director who headed the archiving effort, John O'Keefe, recalls that his team was given a stack of Romney's public schedules spanning four years and a limited variety of other documents from the governor's executive office, but not much else. "We were told we were not in charge of archiving the third floor," he says.

Three weeks before Romney left office in January 2007, O'Keefe's team turned the cartons culled from the statehouse over to archives officials and left 290 more boxes — mostly leftover bulk records from prior administrations — that were authorized for shredding. But the Massachusetts Republican's personal gubernatorial records — including emails exchanged with his aides, private calendars and other materials — were unaccounted for, say O'Keefe and others who worked in the Romney administration at the time.

"They were either left with the governor or were left behind," said O'Keefe, now city manager in Manchester, Vt.

The mystery deepened when the chief legal counsel for Romney's Democratic successor, Gov. Deval Patrick, said recently that just before Patrick took office, material on a state government web server that housed Romney's emails was erased. Top Romney aides also bought and removed their state-issued computer hard drives, and remaining leased computers were replaced. Romney said he followed the law in authorizing the purge, and his campaign aides said their actions were based on a 1997 Massachusetts court ruling that all governors' records are private.

Romney's selective policy toward public access and preservation of his executive records raises stark questions about how transparent his administration would be if he were to become president.

He's not alone. Other leading candidates for the presidency — incumbent Barack Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — have touted their commitment to transparency. But their administrations also have been selective at times in the records they disclose. They have limited, stalled or denied access when it suited their purposes.

"What I wish Americans could expect is a politician who talked a good game and walked a good game, too," said Ken Bunting, executive director of the nonpartisan National Freedom of Information Coalition. "The reality is everybody gives lip service to transparency and accountability."

Romney's submission of paper documents to the Massachusetts archives was made "in the interest of transparency and to help provide a record of his time in office," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior campaign adviser. But the holdings in the archives are far from comprehensive. An Associated Press reporter sent from Washington earlier this fall spent a week examining the Romney archives, but did not find paper copies of any emails to or from Romney or any internal calendars or in-house memos — all commonly used by governors. There are no state archives records accounting for what happened to those materials.

A self-described champion of open government, Obama signed an executive order committing to transparency the day he took office in January 2009. In September his administration issued a "national action plan" requiring all agencies to take detailed steps to improve openness.

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