The AP submitted detailed questions to Romney about how his administration handled public records when he was governor, but the campaign provided only a brief statement: "The governor's office in Massachusetts is not subject to the state's public records law. As a legal matter, it is not required to disclose any documents."
Fehrnstrom, Romney's chief spokesman during that era, said the Romney campaign does not possess any remaining gubernatorial records outside of the Massachusetts archives.
Theresa Dolan, who was director of administration under Romney and six previous governors, said prior administrations had engaged in limited electronic house cleaning, but the selling of hard drives to Romney's aides was not common practice.
After The Boston Globe first reported that his aides had purged electronic files, Romney defended the move, saying the deleted files might have contained confidential medical, judicial or personnel records. Still, when Romney's archive team found hundreds of Social Security numbers and other confidential files at the end of his administration, they separated those materials from thousands of other documents that were turned over to the archives. O'Keefe recalled that anything "confidential in nature" was turned over to a private vendor for shredding. That shredding, O'Keefe said, was approved by the state's Records Conservation Board.
The board's files do not mention any purged electronic files. While Massachusetts governors are not subject to disclosure requirements, they are still obliged to preserve both electronic and paper records, said Laurie Flynn, chief legal counsel for Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin.
Suggesting that Romney's Massachusetts administration "deliberately sought to delete public records" in advance of his 2007 presidential run, the Democratic National Committee has pressed three separate Massachusetts public records requests for more background on the purge. Romney's campaign has responded with its own request to Patrick's office asking for any evidence of collaboration between his staff and Obama re-election officials.
Wolfe, the ACLU lawyer, said the electronic purge set an "alarming" precedent: "I would be concerned about the chief executive wanting to shield the actions of his administration from public scrutiny." Romney has waved off those concerns, saying that if elected, his presidential administration "would do what's required by the law and then some."
In three years in the White House, Obama set an even more ambitious standard. Obama signed an executive order on his first day in office, committing publicly to improving transparency and setting clear goals for federal agencies to respond quickly and expansively to records requests. His directive led to the opening of White House visitor logs and plans to improve response times and declassify outdated secret documents. Earlier this year, the administration followed up with an "open government partnership" aimed as a template for other world governments.
"The president has set a historic standard when it comes to openness," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
But many of Obama's broad pledges have not been met. In the face of criticism, the Justice Department abandoned a proposal that would have allowed officials to pretend that some government files didn't exist when people asked to see them. And the government completely turned down records in one-third of all records requests in 2010 — even censoring 194 pages of internal emails about Obama's Open Government directive.
The White House and Energy Department have been selective about turning over records related to the GOP-led congressional investigation of Solyndra. The AP pressed three separate appeals for records in September, but Energy Department officials said they would take months because of the number of documents and requests to read them. In early October, as Congress threatened to issue subpoenas, administration officials quickly released thousands of pages and DVDs filled with emails.
White House officials would not comment on the sudden shift, but LaBolt said, "The president and this administration are changing the ways Washington works in terms of transparency."
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