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Cuomo criticized for 90-day email deletion policy


Assemblyman Will Barclay has concerns about the state government's email deletion policy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been getting some bipartisan criticism from state lawmakers over an email policy that erases all electronic correspondence of state employees after 90 days.

The policy to delete the emails of state employees after three months has been in place for some time, but is only now being enforced. It was revealed during a recent budget hearing, where Cuomo’s Chief Information Officer Maggie Miller testified before skeptical state lawmakers .

Miller was queried by Sen. Patrick Gallivan a Buffalo-area Republican, who said critics charge it “flies in the face of transparency and accountability of state government."

Miler likened the deletions to an old fashioned paper in-box that becomes overstuffed.

“The same is true in the digital era,” Miller said. “If something is in your in-box unattended to for three months, it can probably go.”

She said the practice also encourages “prudent behavior” and  “responsible  use of state resources."

But Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, a Democrat form Manhattan, asked how state officials would be able to respond to Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests from citizens and the media, if all of the emails had been deleted.

Assemblyman Will Barclay, a Republican from Pulaski, agrees.

"It just seems like too short of a time for emails to be deleted," said Barclay. "First of all, this is government business; it should be open to the public. Obviously, the government gets a lot of Freedom of Information requests, and the fact that they wouldn’t be able to answer some of those FOIL requests because of the 90-day deletion I think is problematic.”

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating state lawmakers and recently arrested the former Assembly speaker on fraud charges. Emails were a key part of building that case, as well as other cases.

“If the New York Assembly announced tomorrow that we were going to take up this policy, Preet Bharara would be at the court door making sure that we did not,” O Donnell said.

Miller says there will be exceptions for legal challenges or FOIL, but the state official or employee would have to decide which emails should be retained. O’Donnell points out that many investigations come after three months have elapsed.

Sen. Liz Krueger, also a Democrat from Manhattan,  says the policy could  actually have the opposite effect, and aid state officials in hiding what they don’t want revealed.

“You disappear the email, it’s all gone, there was no complaint,” Senator Krueger said.

Miler answered that three months is long enough to deal “expeditiously” with any incoming mail.

Krueger was so concerned about what she heard  that she’s drafted a bill to require that New York state follow the federal government’s policy of keeping all email correspondence for seven years. She says it’s important for historical purposes as well.

“Email has become the default communication,” she said.

Krueger says the e mail records can also protect state employees and help in their defense if they are sued.

Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Republican from the Capital Region, is proposing a similar measure. He calls the deletion policy an “egregious abuse of power."

“There’s zero need to do this other than to cover somebody’s tracks or to cover up corruption,” McLaughlin said. “Those are the only explainable reasons for deleting emails this quickly.”

McLaughlin says there have been high profile sexual harassment cases in the Assembly recently, and emails can be key evidence for a victim documenting their complaint.

The governor’s office clarifies what Miller said in the hearing.  They say the 90-day email deletion policy was actually begun in 2007, under former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. But recently, over two dozen older email systems were consolidated into one cloud-based unit, and the state is saving $3 million a year by purging the emails every three months.

The bill to change the deletion policy is gaining support. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, says he’d support a law to preserve the emails longer.  

Barclay supports legislation to change the policy and says the 90-day deletion system should be halted while the legislature can hold hearings on the issue and consider it.

Barclay compares the state standard with that of the federal government, which he says requires emails to be kept for seven years before being deleted. And, he says, the 90-day system just goes against his philosophy of government.

“I’ve always believed that transparency and disclosure and the ability to see what our governor is doing turns out to be better for the government – makes it more efficient, more accountable to the people. And I just think this deletion policy is a step in the wrong direction.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.