A controversy is brewing in New York state where the Gov. Andrew Cuomo administration has adopted a policy to delete state employee emails after 90 days after strongly pushing for government transparency during his campaign.
The Albany Times-Union originally discovered the policy shift as it began last year and recently ProPublica, a nonprofit news operation, has unearthed a previously unpublished memo that outlines the policy in further detail.
At the core of it is a state policy to delete all emails of the tens of thousands of state employees after 90 days unless they have been specifically saved, a more aggressive approach than exists in most states around the country.
“If you’re aggressively destroying your email, it looks like you’re trying to hide something,” said Benjamin Wright, a Dallas lawyer who has advised companies and government agencies on records retention, in an interview with ProPublica.
The memo, published on June 18, 2013, calls for the state’s Office of Information Technology Services to delete emails as a way to cut down on the amount of email data the state was storing.
That message, though, seems to go against conventional thinking. It was instituted as part of the state’s move to Microsoft Office 365, which offers 50 gigabytes of space per user, which is enough to store hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of emails per account. The service also includes unlimited email archiving.
While the state is not required to keep emails for any stated length of time, deleting them after a relatively short period fuels speculation that the administration is trying to hide something or at the very least is not making a concerted effort to have that type of information available to the public.
It’s up to different state governments around the nation to set their own policies, which widely range from state to state. For instance, Florida requires state employees to keep administrative correspondence for at least three years and anything related to policy development for five years.
Connecticut requires its employees to keep email for two years, while Washington state has employees keep any email corresponding with top officials for four years.
For its state, Pennsylvania has a 59-page document on how the state should manage email. It ranges from giving state employees to ability to delete transitory records automatically to policies for holding on to email that could be public record for several years.
Perhaps the case most comparable to New York state, though, came earlier this year in the city of San Diego. The city’s interim mayor wrote an executive order calling for all city email older than one year to be automatically deleted, but he ended up rescinding the order after only a few days because of a public backlash.
That has not happened so far in New York. Since the reports came to light last week, neither the Cuomo administration nor the state’s information technology department has commented publicly on the order further adding to the mystery.
Cuomo has been an open government supporter in many ways during his tenure. Most notably, his administration created open.ny.gov, one of the most comprehensive state open data portals in the country.