Reinvent Albany works for open, accountable New York State government.
As state attorney general, Andrew Cuomo saw for himself how helpful emails could be in exposing truth and bringing wrongdoers to justice. Incriminating emails written by stock analysts made Eliot Spitzer’s reputation as the sheriff of Wall Street. Scheming emails revealed the role of Gov. Christie’s aides in jamming traffic on the George Washington Bridge. Now, as governor, Cuomo wants to be rid of emails across the whole of state government with super speed. His aides say it’s just a matter of efficiency.
Of what kind, we ask.
The governor’s policy of having state agencies delete emails after just 90 days is a violation of the people’s right to know how officials handle government business — and a recipe for cover-ups. Cuomo must reverse the policy immediately. The government must preserve emails just as if they were old-fashioned letters on paper or printed memos. Those are not rapidly shredded. Emails should not be rapidly deleted.
The fact that the governor’s executive chamber began 90-day email purges in 2007 — before Cuomo took office — is no excuse. He made the call to extend the 90-day rule to all executive agencies, a decision made public in 2013 and now being fully implemented. Still more, emails are cheaper to store than paper records. The state’s email system allots 50 gigabytes of storage for each user — enough to hold 30 years’ worth of messages, according to the watchdog group Reinvent Albany.
While the governor’s aides insist the 90-day rule is commonplace in the private sector, it’s way out of line in the public sector. The federal government generally holds onto routine emails for as long as seven years. When the CIA recently proposed erasing emails of ex-employees after three years, the agency took heat for being too hasty.
The policy of the New York State Archives calls for retaining correspondence related to policy developments — a category that would cover a big chunk of state emails — for at least two years.
It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to wonder why Cuomo — knowing full well the power of email for holding government accountable — would move so aggressively to wipe it out.
What’s the hurry, governor?
The letter embedded below was emailed to senior Cuomo administration officials on January 29th, 2015. The letter was months in the making, and the twenty groups signing the letter did not release it to the public, because we did not want to put the governor on the spot publicly, and our goal is not to give the governor negative press, but to change a bad policy. We hoped our groups could stand with the governor as he announced a new email retention policy as part of Sunshine Week in March. However, an intrepid reporter started calling around after obtaining a recent Cuomo administration memo about new email deletions and our letter was subsequently leaked. (See Cuomo Administration Begins Large-Scale Email Purges in Capital NY.) As of today, the Cuomo administration has not acknowledged receiving our letter or otherwise responded to our request. Download our brief on email retention, and the following Cuomo Administration memos:
Albany is in the midst of a long ethical meltdown. In just a few years we have seen a governor, comptroller, senate leaders and an assembly speaker arrested or deposed because of scandal. Most recently Sheldon Silver was indicted in part for hiding secret payments made from a law firm which employed him as a consultant. After Watergate, Congress passed major, lasting reforms. This is New York’s Watergate moment. The legislature needs to show it is serious, and a first step is capping outside income as Congress did decades ago.
Today, Reinvent Albany, NYPIRG, and Common Cause NY urged the governor and state lawmakers to agree to cap the outside income of state legislators at 15% of the highest salary paid to any sitting legislator. The groups bolstered their call for reform with a report, titled Serving Two Masters: Conflicts of Interest in Albany, which found that an overwhelming majority of state lawmakers already restrict their outside income. The report quotes the US House of Representative’s explanation of why they capped outside income:
“Many citizens perceive outside earned income as providing Members with an opportunity to ‘cash in’ on their positions of influence. Even if there is no actual impropriety, such sources of income give the appearance of impropriety and, in so doing, further undermine public confidence and trust in government officials.”
Two-thirds of state lawmakers reported outside income of less than $20,000. This includes 35 of 53 state senators and 97 of 134 assembly members.