Secret Email

By Michael R. Blood and Juliet Williams
Associated Press
03/30/2015 – 12:12 AM


Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other top elected officials in California acknowledge using personal email accounts to conduct government business, and it’s not clear if their private exchanges are retained as public records or subject to disclosure.

An Associated Press survey of email use by the state’s four legislative leaders and eight top elected officers found a loose patchwork of practices under which private electronic conversations while on the job are alternately commonplace, infrequent or discouraged.

Brown’s office says the governor occasionally uses private email to contact staffers, while Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson conducts most of his state business on a personal email account.

The use of private emails by public officials has come under increased scrutiny as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton faces sharp criticism for using a private email account while at the State Department and acknowledging she deleted thousands of messages.

California has no blanket policy restricting the use of personal email for government-related activities. Advocates warn that the gap in the law gives officials the opportunity to hold private electronic discussions on state matters — with lobbyists or political donors, for example — that could be erased or edited with the push of a computer key or tap of a cellphone.

“There is always a cloud hanging over a public official who is not using an official email to conduct the public’s business,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, which promotes government transparency. “That hurts public confidence.”

The Democratic governor, who carries an iPhone, uses a private email account for what his office described as “informal communication” with his staff, such as distributing news stories or brief messages such as “please call.”

Controller Betty Yee, a Democrat, said she does not use a personal account for official matters because “the public’s business should be conducted through state resources, and that includes using government email accounts for government work.” Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, told AP earlier this month she uses private email to communicate with top staffers, but only rarely.

By comparison, Torlakson said he conducts most of his state business on private email because it’s more convenient.

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