Promises, promises: Records shielded by candidates

By Stephen Braun

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30 2011 5:14 p.m. MST

His administration's performance has bright spots but has not nearly fulfilled Obama's pledges. The federal government responded to fewer records requests in 2010 even as the numbers of requests grew, according to an AP study earlier this year. Agencies often frustrate requests with delays — such as the administration's slowness in responding to the AP's requests for records related to government loans to the now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra.

Perry has touted his decision ordering Texas state agencies to post electronic data online, but he has also curtailed access to his private calendars and travel records. As Perry revved up his presidential bid last September, his chief of staff, Jeffrey S. Boyd, sent emails to the governor's staff, warning them of growing records requests and ordering, "Do not utilize email unless it is essential to do so."

The growing use by government agencies and political campaigns of new channels of electronic communication, including text messages, online videos and social media services, has opened new dimensions in the availability of public records. But candidates haven't been especially transparent.

Newt Gingrich agreed to release payment records of his consulting work for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation only after the news service Bloomberg revealed details of his role with the government-sponsored agency. Rep. Michele Bachmann's staff declined AP requests for receipts and other records that would show how she spent millions in government money to cover payroll and other expenses, instead offering only limited information already published by the House.

The administration of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who decided not to enter the race, told the AP it would cost $30,000 to provide comprehensive electronic and paper files from his second term. And the office of Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, who ran but then dropped out, estimated a cost of $1,150 to provide the AP with records of just one of dozens of out-of-state trips he took while governor.

Romney's purge of electronic records is matched by the Perry administration's policy of deleting all inter-office emails older than one week — a policy started by his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said Boyd's email warning was simply "to remind employees to only use email when necessary."

"There's the potential for a lot more raw information than in the past as emails and other electronic communications replace phone and face-to-face conversations," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit public interest group. "The problem is we're seeing officials and governments moving more and more to shield those materials from public access."

Only about one-quarter of the 630 cartons of Romney paper records are available for inspection at the Massachusetts archives. State legal officials have yet to say whether the 1997 court ruling allows access to the other material. Even if they do, Assistant State Archivist Michael Comeau said, staff shortages and time-consuming redaction checks could extend delays close to the 2012 election. More than 75 cartons examined by the AP revealed staff and legislative documents but no internal materials written to or from Romney himself — except for ceremonial bill-signing and official letters.

As governor, Romney's careful line on providing records was based on a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that "the governor is not explicitly included" among agencies covered by the state's Public Records Law, which generally requires agencies to submit to records requests. Other governors since 1997 have interpreted the ruling similarly.

Archived records from Romney's communications office — among the few third-floor materials that were saved — show that between 2003 and 2007, his administration at times provided documents requested by media and others. But in many cases, Romney officials either turned down requests or offered partial responses, saying the requests were "overly broad" or that disclosure "would not serve the public interest."

"It's the discretionary nature of the responses that's worrying," said Gavi Wolfe, legal counsel for the Boston office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If they're in the public interest and don't impinge on privacy or investigations, records should be made public."

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