COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Two years' worth of emails South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster sent and received before he took the state's top job have been deleted despite priorities to save the electronic communications as historical records.
The Post and Courier of Charleston reports (http://bit.ly/2xT5Qvx) that no one acted to preserve McMaster's emails from his time as lieutenant governor and they were automatically deleted after six months.
McMaster was elevated from lieutenant governor after his predecessor Nikki Haley was named United Nations ambassador in January.
McMaster early on backed the presidential bid of Donald Trump - who attacked Democrat Hillary Clinton for deleted emails.
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes says the governor wasn't involved in deleting the emails.
by a government agency without being shared with state archivers, a move that experts say could violate South Carolina's public records law.
The policy that led to McMaster's emails disappearing en masse is a common practice for members of the Legislature. But as an executive position, the lieutenant governor faces more stringent requirements to preserve documents under state law.
To transparency advocates in the state, McMaster's missing emails from his two years in the lieutenant governor's office are just one sign of widespread problems with public officials and agencies struggling to keep up with changes in technology.
"I think they're all overwhelmed and don't know what to do with all these emails, so they probably just don't do anything with them and don't send them to the Department of Archives," said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. "We're still in a transition period as we move towards more electronic communications, and I don't think activity or actions have caught up to where they should be."
The Legislative Services Agency, which helps to operate technology for the General Assembly, maintains email for members of the Legislature, including McMaster's emails when he was lieutenant governor. But the agency has a 180-day retention policy, so McMaster's emails were automatically deleted after that time limit was reached, agency director Troy Pound said.
Due to the massive volume of emails the Legislature sends and receives, thousands of emails each day, the Legislative Services Agency instituted the 180-day retention policy several years ago to keep server space at a manageable level. Reid said he could not remember exactly when the policy was put in place, but it was at least three years ago.
McMaster's spokesman, Brian Symmes, said the governor had no personal involvement in deleting the emails, and he faulted the Legislative Services Agency's retention policy for erasing them.
"The governor thinks it's unfortunate that email records were not preserved by the Legislative Services Agency and will continue to push for change in the law to make sure documents related to government business are available to the public," Symmes said in a statement to The Post and Courier.
Senate Clerk Jeff Gossett said the 180-day retention policy on their network system does not prevent members from preserving the emails themselves.
McMaster's successor, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, is working to comply with the law by downloading all executive emails - everything excluding mailing list blasts and spam - from him and his staff onto flash drives, his lawyer, Catherine McNicoll, said.
McMaster, a former state attorney general and U.S. attorney who co-chaired an ethics reform task force in 2012 under then-Gov. Nikki Haley, did hang on to all correspondence with constituents when he was lieutenant governor from 2015 to 2017. Symmes said that move "exceeded years of precedent set in place by past lieutenant governors."
Describing McMaster as a "champion" of public record laws, Symmes said the governor is working to archive those constituent emails.
The Post and Courier first began requesting a small chunk of McMaster's emails in July.
In the months since, the governor's office, the lieutenant governor's office, the State Department of Archives, the Legislative Services Agency and the administrative Division of Technology have all confirmed that they do not have most of McMaster's emails from his time as lieutenant governor.
Even though the emails are gone for good, it's unlikely anyone will get punished. It's also unclear who ought to get punished. Even if anyone were sanctioned, penalties for not complying with the public records laws are minimal. Destroying public records carries in extreme cases a maximum $5,000 fine or 30 days in jail, with jurisdiction given to magistrates' courts.
The Department of Archives has no investigators and no legal team to check if public officials are complying with the law, said Eric Emerson, the agency's director. What's more, the agency's budget is determined by the Legislature, meaning lawmakers could potentially punish the agency if it tried to aggressively hold them to account.
Longtime South Carolina government watchdog John Crangle said agencies' failure to retain the emails shows the state's public records laws need to be stronger.
"I don't see any real justification for erasing the records at six months or six years for that matter," Crangle said. "They're historical records."
What makes McMaster's situation unusual is that lieutenant governors do not normally attract much public scrutiny. The part-time position has often been viewed as a figurehead with minimal responsibilities other than running the Office on Aging and presiding over the state Senate.
"Traditionally, lieutenant governors' emails just haven't been that important," Emerson said.
But McMaster became the first lieutenant governor since 1965 to be elevated to the governor's office when his predecessor, Nikki Haley, was tapped to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in January. He was also the first statewide politician in the nation to back the insurgent 2016 presidential bid of Donald Trump - who lambasted opponent Hillary Clinton for deleted emails - and is running for a full term as governor next year.
The governor's emails are housed in the state Department of Administration, which does not delete emails on a set timeframe. Haley faced questions about her own email policies when it was revealed in 2011 that her office was deleting all of her emails except for correspondence with constituents.
But the lieutenant governor's role as president of the Senate may explain why his emails are controlled by the S.C. Legislative Services Agency.
Beyond retention of emails on government accounts, Rogers said he is even more concerned about a "shadow government" being conducted on private email accounts that government officials do not disclose.
In 2016, a public record request for a week's worth Haley's emails showed she was not conducting any government business through her government account. A request for communications in the governor's office during the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church massacre led to the release of more than 10,000 emails, but they included nothing from Haley to staff members, legislators or law enforcement leaders. Her staff explained in both cases that Haley preferred to speak with about government matters in person and on the phone.
McMaster and his staff do not use private email to conduct any government business, Symmes said. They even have a formal office policy to forward any emails received on private accounts about public business to their government emails, he added.
Still, good government proponents in South Carolina have long feared the practice is widespread elsewhere - and difficult to prove.
"I think it's just the tip of the iceberg," Rogers said.
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