Despite decades in office, Cooper leaves faint email trail

Posted August 14, 2016 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 2:59 p.m. EDT

Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper speaks at an event in Durham, N.C., May 25, 2016.

— For several years at the end of April, an email fired off from the account of Attorney General Roy Cooper to every one of his more than 800 workers in the North Carolina Department of Justice.

It's an email not atypical of a state agency boss praising his staff during State Employee Recognition Week.

"Though this a week specifically to recognize your hard work, I hear about your continued efforts from people all over North Carolina," the 2012 version of the email, dated April 30, reads. "I am so grateful for your dedicated service. Even with more to do each year, you continue to meet the challenges."

What's unusual about the note isn't its content, it's the fact that the email exists at all: It's one of only a handful of messages that have come from Cooper's account during his nearly 15 years as North Carolina's top lawyer.

In the last year, for example, he sent only two.

In an age of instant and ubiquitous digital communication, the 59-year-old Democrat's outright avoidance of email stands out among his state government colleagues, including Gov. Pat McCrory, whom Cooper faces in this fall's election. It's also notable given the state's history: It's been a less than decade since Cooper's office defended then-Gov. Mike Easley in a public records lawsuit over the release of email.

Cooper's aides say the attorney general avoids the technology both due to a personal preference for face-to-face communication and to an early recommendation from staff concerned about the sheer volume of messages generated by the thousands of consumer complaints and court cases the office handles every year.

Open government advocates say Cooper's email practices are a far cry from Easley's tactics, which were intentional steps to hide his administration's communication from the public. But they say, for a candidate aiming to become the state's top executive, the lack of an email trail has the potential to create gaps in the public's understanding.

"It certainly makes it harder to get that kind of insight into his thought process, management style and how he interacts with the public and his employees than you'd get from a heavy email user," Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an instructor at Elon University, said.

Amid reams of paper, few emails from AG

A WRAL News review of more than 36,000 of pages of records from Cooper's tenure at the state Department of Justice, the result of a March 2015 request from the North Carolina Republican Party, turned up only a few emails sent from Cooper's official email account.

WRAL News submitted separate requests for the prior year's worth of emails sent from Cooper's private and personal accounts. Those requests returned only two emails – both related to an announcement of salary increases to staff.

A Cooper spokeswoman said the attorney general was unavailable for comment about his email practices this week.

But in her more than 15 years working for him, DOJ Senior Policy Advisor Julia White says Cooper has deliberately chosen to use email very rarely as head of the office.

​"He does use email occasionally, but he is a traditional face-to-face communications person," White said. "He would prefer to pick up the phone, to call people to a meeting, to drop by their offices – sometimes to their horror."

As a part of Cooper's original transition team when he made the leap from the state Senate to attorney general in 2001, White said staff at the time recommended he limit his email use over concerns that incoming messages about pending court cases and law enforcement actions wouldn't get where they needed to go. Early on, she said, Cooper's official address would get copied on everything from consumer complaints to discovery requests, making the account all but unusable.

"I know it seems like a thousand years ago, but email was not routinely used," White said. "Even electronic court filing was either new or nonexistent when he first became attorney general."

Cooper's approach to email hasn't changed in his nearly four terms as attorney general, a period that saw Internet usage grow from about 50 percent of the American adult population to nearly 90 percent. But White said Cooper's preference for in-person discussion has meant more clarity at the DOJ, even for those in the office who prefer electronic communication.

"Saying 'Good job. Well done,' or 'Happy Employee Appreciation Day' can be done in kind of a blanket way, but when you're actually trying to make a decision about how to move something forward or set a public policy or draft a law or defend a case, email does not lend itself to that," White said.

Email common for Cooper's counterparts

Avoiding email isn't totally unheard of. Public records requests revealed few direct comments from the official email accounts of past state leaders, like McCrory's former Department of Health and Human Services secretary, Aldona Wos.

McCrory himself, records show, is a regular user of email, as are other members of his cabinet.

"It's surprising that a high-level government official would not be using email," Jones said. "For most of us in modern society, it's a common way for us to communicate."

A former Durham prosecutor, Jones said avoiding email may benefit the head of the DOJ in different ways than, say, a secretary of agriculture.

"It makes some sense if you're the executive of an agency that's constantly engaged in all sorts of litigation that you would want to minimize exposure in all sorts of things that could get taken out of context in court," Jones said.

But he added that most lawyers use email by necessity, even if they're not particularly fond of it.

The National Association of Attorneys General issues no guidance or best practices to its members on the use of email, according to spokeswoman Rachel Stone. But Cooper stands out among his national counterparts, such as South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, a regular email user.

"Attorney General Wilson uses his SCAG.GOV e-mail for official/office correspondence," Matt Orr, Wilson's spokesman, said in a statement.

Harlow Sumerford, a spokesman for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, also said that state's top lawyer uses his government-issued email account in his official capacity.

Broadly, North Carolina's public records law was designed on the premise that, aside from several notable exceptions, a record is public if was created to conduct government business. But there's nothing that requires anyone to create those records.

"In many of the interactions these public officials have, they don't see a need to have some sort of record," said Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been active in open government issues. "If it's not needed to make the decision, they don't need to feel obligated to."

Given Cooper's long tenure as attorney general, White said. there's plenty of material – statements in meetings, interviews and conferences, for example – for the public to analyze.

Yet, beyond the day-to-day business of running state government, correspondence like email can be incredibly valuable to for its more candid nature.

"Because people treat it so casually, it gives us a great deal of insight," Jones said. "When it's properly preserved, it's an incredible treasure trove for history."

Kokai said he sees "nothing overtly nefarious" about Cooper's choice to avoid email. But he said it does limit at least somewhat the ability of public to see what factors weighed in a particular decision.

"When you're able to see the traffic, obviously that does shine light on the inner workings of government. The absence of it, I don't think, creates a huge problem," Kokai said. "I think there is a problem if there was a public record and someone tried to delete it."

Former Gov. Mike Easley

Would practice change under Cooper administration?

Email has proven to be a problem for past leaders, specifically personal email used to do their jobs.

In 2008, several media outlets sued Easley, alleging he was violating public records law by destroying emails that should have been released upon request. Administration staffers revealed during the lawsuit, defended by Cooper's office, that the governor created a private email address using the name of the fictional detective Nick Danger spelled backwards to shield his discussions from records requests.

"To me, there's a definite distinction between what you're talking about with Roy Cooper and the stink with Mike Easley," Kokai, whose foundation was a party to the lawsuit, said. "At worst, Roy Cooper is trying to limit the amount of paper trail he's creating, and at best, it's a byproduct of the way he goes about his work."

The state GOP, however, slammed Cooper in a statement criticizing his office's response to the party's massive records request.

"Just like Hillary Clinton, Roy Cooper has a big email problem. Roy Cooper has been the state's chief law enforcement officer for 16 years, but his office has only produced 14 emails from the attorney general one year and 149 days after we filed our request," party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said. "My 10-year-old son sends more emails than that in a day, so Roy Cooper either isn't doing his job, has a secret email server somewhere to purposely skirt public records laws or both."

Cooper campaign spokesman Ford Porter said the Democratic candidate is committed to open government and responded with his own criticism of McCrory, who's facing a lawsuit from media organizations, including WRAL News, alleging the governor's administration is violating state records law by dragging its feet in response to requests. McCrory's office has repeatedly denied violating the law and says it's committed to transparency.

It's unclear if, separated from his responsibilities as head of the DOJ, a Cooper administration would see an uptick in email traffic.

"If Attorney General Cooper is given the opportunity to serve as governor, he will work with staff to develop procedures that are effective and efficient," Porter said in a statement. "His office policy will be to continue to operate in an open and accessible manner."

Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley, herself an almost 15-year veteran of the attorney general's staff, said his preference for one-on-one communication is a well-known part of his management style.

"Some of it is the role. Some of it's also his personality. He's a cautious and deliberative person, and he likes to talk things through. So, I wouldn't anticipate that changing," Talley said.

Although it may make things less efficient at times, White said Cooper's lack of emailing also prevents misunderstandings and rash decision-making. Overall, she said, even staffers who make frequent use of email have been able to work around the practice.

If Cooper's management style happens to persist into the Executive Mansion, Kokai said, the public needs to remember that requests for email records aren't likely to yield much paper.

"There are some implications for what you could expect from email records from a Cooper administration if he does become governor," Kokai said. "It is something that people ought to keep in mind."