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When public emails go private

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By Hal Rhodes

Last week, Gov. Susana Martinez issued an edict declaring, henceforth, members of her administration would no longer use their private email systems to transact official business of the state.
 Martinez reportedly said even she would abide by her new directive.
The day following Martinez’s directive, news broke that her former corrections secretary, Lupe Martinez, had given an affidavit stipulating that the governor’s chief of staff actually instructed that private emails be used to circumvent requests for public records.
Conducting public business by means of private email accounts has been a source of controversy for Martinez from almost the beginning.
The prevailing legal view holds that the personal emails of public officials are not subject to a state law permitting private individuals and groups to request access to public documents.
In other words, if a government official is up to mischief and would rather not have news organizations or watchdog outfits poking around, that official can simply use his/her personal email account to transact the skullduggery, thereby avoiding the inconvenience of outside scrutiny.
Let’s say the governor wants to get tough on state corrections officials about an escaped inmate. Only she doesn’t want her contacts with those officials on record. What’s she to do?   She probably shouldn’t use the email system at the office, because its records are subject to public access requests.  She could, however, safely use the private email at her political action committee where, lo and behold, her very own political consultant, Jay McCleskey, is under contract.
The governor reportedly did just that, only, worse luck, the attorney for a corrections official claiming to have been wrongfully fired got wind of it and blew the whistle, leaving Susana Martinez with an eggy face.
The governor’s political consultant is not a public official, mind you. But McCleskey’s finger prints keep showing up all over the affairs of government in the Martinez administration.
 Not long ago, McCleskey wanted names and email addresses of New Mexico teachers who are not affiliated with teachers’ unions. Onlooker might wonder why the governor’s political consultant would want that kind of information. Or why the state of New Mexico should be in the business of giving political consultants the names and addresses of school teachers, union or otherwise.
But let’s not be naïve here. McCleskey wanted that information to use to the advantage of clients for whom he is a paid political consultant, perhaps even a client who presides on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse.
 In any case, McCleskey took his quest for information to the Public Education Department where state employees and resources were put to work digging out the names and email addresses he sought.
 And once the digging was done and time came to dispatch this information to McCleskey, Education Department spokesman Larry Behrens chose not to use his official state email account for purposes for transmission.
Rather, he loaded up his own private email and in a flash the consultant had what he wanted with no threat of some newspaper or watchdog group submitting a request for information lurking in the state email system.
It was all for naught. A couple of Democratic legislators found out about the hanky panky and asked the state attorney general to investigate whether laws had been broken.
Whereupon headlines erupted all over this Enchanted Land and before long Gov. Martinez was handing down edicts prohibiting the use of private email accounts by state employees for the purpose of transacting public business.
As if she hadn’t tried her hand at that game herself.
Hal Rhodes
N.M. Progress