State News

Report: Easley Press Office Ordered E-mails Deleted

Posted March 29, 2008 4:12 p.m. EDT
Updated March 30, 2008 1:05 p.m. EDT

— State government public information officers were instructed by Gov. Mike Easley's press office to delete e-mails to and from the governor's office, according to notes released Saturday by the governor's office.

Andrew A. Vanore Jr., a lawyer who works for Easley, provided notes made by two public-information officers to the News & Observer. The notes showed that they and others were told at a meeting on May 29, 2007, to destroy e-mails. A third public-information officer said he also recalled those instructions.

Vanore, though, said the notes do not mean what they seem to and that the instructions were not followed.

"I am confident that emails to and from the Governor's Press Office have not been systematically destroyed," Vanore wrote in a March 29 letter to Hugh Stevens, an attorney who represents the N&O. "To the contrary, there was a systematic retention of those emails which continue to have an administrative value."

Easley's chief legal counsel, Reuben F. Young, was vacationing with his family in China and could not be reached for comment. Deputy press secretary Seth Effron was instructed by Vanore not to comment.

Questions about the way the Easley administration handles e-mails arose after publication of five part series on mental-health reform in the N&O. The series reported that the state has wasted at least $400 million on the ill-conceived and poorly executed reform plan.

Two days after the series ended, Easley ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to fire its public-information officer, Debbie Crane. Later that day, Crane claimed the governor's press office had directed that e-mails be deleted to bypass the state's public records law.

Young and Effron quickly denied that such instructions had been given.

Julia Jarema, public-information officer at the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, recorded this note for the meeting in question: "Public records request – increasing careful of email delete emails to/from gov. office every day."

Diana Kees, public-information officer at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, recorded this note: "emails – more & more public records requests (blogs?) be careful w/emails; delete emails to and from gov office every day."

Vanore said he did not know what the notes meant.

"It could be interpreted a number of different ways, and the only way to properly interpret it would be to talk to the individual who took the note," he said. Vanore said he instructed all of the employees not to talk about that issue, because the newspaper may file a lawsuit.

Vanore said the e-mail messages to and from the governor's press office were clear and irrefutable proof that there was no systematic intent to destroy e-mail.

His March 29 letter says that after a public-records from the N&O, he turned over 1,800 emails from over nine months among the governor's press secretary and two cabinet agency public-information officers.

"The sheer volume is evidence that the e-mails that needed to be preserved as public records have been retained," Vanore wrote.

"It is clear to me that there was no, nor has there been and nor is there now, wholesale or inappropriate effort to 'systemically ... delete or destroy email messages exchanged with the Office of the Governor,'" he continued.

Stevens said the notes made by Jarema and Kees confirmed Crane's allegation.

"This sounds to me as though there was a concerted and willful attempt to evade the public records law by deleting the e-mails," he said. "I don't see how you can interpret it any other way."