WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and some of his top aides used private email accounts to conduct state business at times when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The communications were legal, even though Romney's own administration warned state agencies against the practice due to cyber security concerns. The state archives in Massachusetts — which learned about Romney's emails from the AP — now says the private emails should have invoked rules about preserving copies of state records.
Private email accounts used by public officials to perform their public jobs are effectively off limits to review by citizens, watchdog groups, political opponents and news organizations because they're often used secretly. Free accounts from commercial providers also are more vulnerable to hackers who exploit easy-to-use features to reset email passwords.
Romney's use of a free Microsoft Hotmail account and a private email address linked to his 2008 presidential campaign was revealed in documents the AP obtained under the Massachusetts Public Records Law. The Romney files, which span four months in mid-2006, represent the first substantive emails written by him to surface since he left public office in 2007. When the AP examined dozens of boxes of archived materials last summer in Boston from Romney's former administration, it found no emails or memos written by or to Romney himself.
Some of the emails obtained by AP describe Romney's internal deliberations on his health care policy and the state's 2006 budget crisis: "I hate appearing as if I am just playing national politics," Romney wrote in November 2006 during sensitive negotiations on state budget cuts, when he was preparing his 2008 presidential campaign. Romney chose to use his full name as his Hotmail username.
The private email accounts raise questions about why Romney and his aides sometimes bypassed Massachusetts' official communications system — and how many of those emails remain and whether they could be disclosed to the public. Late last year, Romney acknowledged that near the end of his governor's term in 2007 he approved a sweeping purge of executive emails from the state government's computer servers, and the removal of top aides' hard drives and computers. Romney justified the purge as legal, prompted by privacy worries.
Romney's presidential campaign declined to explain why Romney and his aides used the private accounts or explain how long and how extensively they used them.
"Gov. Romney and his staff complied with the law and followed precedent in the handling of documents in the executive office," campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Using private email accounts to conduct government business has embroiled leading politicians, including Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, and has become a growing legal flashpoint nationwide. While 26 states view the use of private emails for government business as public records, the rest have no clear rules or prevailing case law — a source for continuing turmoil in state courts.
"Any time public business is being done electronically, whether its public or private email, the public should have a record," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, which tracks how states deal with electronic data and other records. "When you use private devices to do public business you remove public accountability."
Last year, former Alaska Gov. Palin — the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate — was forced to release more than 24,000 pages of emails from her official and private Yahoo email accounts, including more than 400 emails from her Yahoo account.
Separately, a college student in Tennessee, David Kernell, was convicted in April 2010 on federal charges of hacking into Palin's private emails weeks before the 2008 presidential election. Palin and her daughter Bristol testified about harassment and disruption they suffered. Kernell had correctly guessed answers to security questions guarding Palin's account, giving him access.
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