The email saga spreads to New York

2014-06-11t155415z1813105711gm1ea6b1uc101rtrmadp3usa-politics-clintonRegular readers will know that Hillary Clinton is not one of this column’s favorite Democrats but that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is. That the email scandal has now spread from Foggy Bottom and Chappaqua to Albany is significant.

Governor Cuomo’s policy, apparently, is to delete emails after 90 days. The reasons for this policy are unclear. This is partly because the official who was answering questions on the subject at the state legislature was not, well, answering questions. 

Maggie Miller, Chief Information Officer, was asked why the policy was adopted. Her response was “All I can say is that I fully support the policy”. Really? That’s all you can say? While it is easy to appreciate that she might not know the original reasons for the policy – she is new in post and the policy dates to 2007 – one might imagine that if she supports the policy she would be able to make a defense of it. 

She might not know why the policy was originally adopted by Governor Elliot Spitzer – though, like the rest of us, she presumably knows that the Spitzer administration had a great deal to hide and she might be able to make a good guess – but she presumably knows why she supports the policy. She must be aware of the aspects of the policy she finds worthy of support. Let us stipulate that she doesn’t know, with any certitude, why the policy seemed attractive in 2007, but please tell us why it seems attractive today. 

Emails do not take up physical space. There is less reason to delete them than there is to incinerate paper files, yet if a government department routinely destroyed all paper documents after 90 days those responsible for holding the department to account would be likely to find it suspicious. 

Accountability requires a paper trail or, in today’s digital world, a pixel trail. For centuries governments have been required to keep financial records so that they can be subject to audit and to budgetary control. While this is an essential part of accountability, it is far from the only essential part. There should be a basis on which documents should be subject to scrutiny.

One might ask why, when the Nixon administration was asked to hand over documents to Congress it did not simply destroy the documents instead. The answer is that such destruction would have been illegal. To have destroyed them in anticipation of possible subpoena would have been illegal. To have destroyed them during the period when the administration was going to court to dispute the power of Congress to subpoena the documents would have been illegal. 

Richard Nixon believed that he did not have to hand over documents to Congress, but he did, at least, know that he was not allowed to destroy those documents. 

Cuomo did not institute the policy. He still has an opportunity to “review” it and declare that, now he has thought about it, he realizes the policy is an outrage against accountability and good government. But the clock is ticking. There is already scandal around the Clinton Team’s destruction of 30,000 emails. It is no longer credible for the governor to claim that he has simply not considered the issue. If he has considered it, and decided that destroying the pixel trail is good policy, he needs an explanation.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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