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Automated Request Halts Email Destruction in Governor's Office

Gov. Rick Perry’s state office has temporarily stopped deleting emails every seven days, thanks to the efforts of Wisconsin-based political activist John Washburn. His request for the emails has shed new light on a controversial records destruction policy.

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Gov. Rick Perry’s state office has temporarily stopped deleting emails every seven days — as its official document retention policy allows — thanks to the efforts of a Wisconsin-based political activist who thinks they should be preserved longer.

Government transparency advocate John Washburn has devised a computer program to automatically spit out requests, twice a week, for all of the emails generated by the governor’s office. That has had the impact of halting the routine destruction of the records, because the law says files can’t be destroyed if somebody asks for them under the Texas Public Information Act.

Soon after he filed the request, Washburn said the governor's office assured him the "email purging has stopped."

The Milwaukee-based activist made a similar request a few years ago, but he gave up after a few weeks because he couldn’t afford to pay for the documents he was entitled to receive. He ultimately got only four days’ worth of emails. Still, the files revealed some raw and unfiltered talk among aides and appointees, along with an important story about foster children who were sleeping in emergency shelters.

Then, like now, Washburn’s request has had the effect of shedding light on how records are kept — or in this case destroyed — in the Texas governor’s office.

“Unfortunately, what has happened in Texas is the record of Rick Perry is being systematically destroyed on a weekly basis,” said Keith Elkins, director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "It’s not the way that state agencies are told to conduct their business, and I don’t think it’s correct for the chief executive officer of Texas either.”

Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman, said the governor's office is complying with the request and doesn't destroy important emails under the provisions of the current policy. She said employees of the governor destroy only "transitory" emails every seven days. They are supposed to keep any records that belong in historical archives or otherwise would fall under some definition of a public record.

Frazier said the policy dates back to Perry's predecessor, George W. Bush.

“All governor's office employes are required to retain public records pursuant to state law," Frazier said. "Our records retention policy is something that dates back to the Bush administration, and that has simply been carried over to this administration.”

Another Perry spokeswoman, Lucy Nashed, said the request from Washburn has prompted the governor's office to save items it would have deleted.

"In the interest of transparency and in order to maintain all the emails he has requested, we have suspended the process by which we normally remove transitory emails," Nashed said.

Open government advocates say the seven-day destruction policy does not have enough safeguards in it, and they worry that important historical documents are being sent to the electronic trash bin.

Washburn decided to ask for the records in 2007 after reading a story, by former KVUE blogger and Texas Tribune reporter Elise Hu, about Perry's policy of purging emails every seven days.

His new automatically generated letter begins with a complaint about the policy, before delving into legalese about the state open records laws and the scope of the request.

"I must first state my displeasure that it is still the policy of the Office of the Governor of Texas to destroy public records after seven days," Washburn's letter says. "Please change this obnoxious archive policy (destruction of records after 7 days) to a more reasonable archive strategy. Public records such as e-mails should be archived for at least one year. The retention period should be longer given the simplicity of archiving electronic data."

Perry was not impressed by Washburn's request the first time around, telling a group of reporters in his office that the emails had largely centered on inner-office chat that was of no interest to the public.

"If we’re allowed to make a determination on keeping records that really matter, then I think we do that," Perry said at the time. "If we're going to spend our time gleaning through those for hours instead of doing the work of the people of the state of Texas, I think we’re headed in the wrong direction.”

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