Deletion of Bullock’s State Emails Raises Serious Questions

State law defines most state emails as 'public records'

By Nels Swandal and Robin Jackson

Montanans expect their top law enforcement officer not only to enforce the law, but to follow the law. That’s why Gov. Steve Bullock’s mishandling of state emails as attorney general is so disheartening.

Recent reports reveal that, following his election as governor, every email from Bullock’s four years as AG was deleted. All emails of his senior appointed staff were deleted. The email accounts were wiped clean.

State law defines most state emails as “public records.” Montana Code requires preservation of public records. Many are to be preserved even after the official leaves office. The law requires state employees to pass records, including emails, on to their successors.

These laws fulfill Article II Section 9 of our Montana Constitution. “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”’

As lifelong Montanans, we are proud of the “sunshine” provisions in our constitution, designed to keep the inner working of our government open to our citizens.

Unfortunately, Bullock’s failure to preserve emails casts a pall over his tenure as AG. His digital “public record” no longer exists.

The Bullock Administration’s response, that this is “normal procedure,” is technically accurate in describing the Department of Administration’s operations. However, the DoA, as the provider of IT services, only provides infrastructure for delivering, storing and sending email. DoA is not responsible for assessing which emails are “public records” and how those public records should be preserved.

Blaming DoA policy is like blaming Google for deleting valuable information in your Gmail because you cancelled your account. You are responsible for saving your information before you cancel. Google doesn’t know what is important and what isn’t, that is your responsibility.

While it may be normal procedure for DoA to delete email accounts, then-AG Bullock and his staff had a legal obligation to preserve email they sent or received according to State records retention policies and Montana law.

Deleting these emails is more than an abstract political issue. It is a real problem with real consequences, impairing all Montanans’ ability to exercise our constitutional right to “examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government.” This right protects our ability to question or appeal state agency actions that affect us or our loved ones.

Bullock and his staff are not the first government employees to ignore the rules for official government email. Montana’s attorney general should maintain a higher ethical standard, however, and respect the obligation to preserve the public record for the public good. The Bullock administration’s false narrative, that deleting emails without preserving public records is “normal procedure,” is not only wrong but also encourages similar behavior by other state employees.

The problem needs to be addressed, not dismissed.

Instead of promoting an incorrect interpretation of record retention laws, Bullock should acknowledge his mistake. As governor, he needs to ensure that each agency fully complies with the statutory obligation to preserve public records, regardless of the medium or some arbitrary storage limitations set by DoA.

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