Problems with politicians destroying public records

Some of the most fundamental principles of democratic rule are heuristic in nature. The social contract, for example, implies that we should contribute taxes and surrender a few liberties in exchange for protection. The public trust is another such principle, whereby the people place their trust in government officials, who must in turn respect the trust placed upon them.

Within the principle of public trust we find crucial applications such as the retention and dissemination of public records generated by the actions of politicians and government officials. These records are inherent to keeping the public trust because they promote transparency. Constituents need to know how funds are being managed, how officials are behaving, how legislators are working, etc. Anyone that wants to can walk into a local government office or a library and make a public records request. When public records are kept secret or even destroyed by those who actually generate the information contained therein, the public trust crumbles.

Recent Examples of Public Records Destruction

Keeping public records furtively hidden is a deplorable action that questions the integrity of those responsible for the hiding. A recent, high-profile example of this practice is related to former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is alleged to have set up a private email server in a property registered to an unknown person. In this situation, it is very troubling to think that a Secretary of State would want to keep electronic communications hidden from other officials and the public.

When it comes to electronic communications, government officials are expected to conduct official business on systems that have been set up for automated record keeping, backup, encryption, etc. Using private systems for this purpose can only arise suspicion from the public; a more egregious act would be to actively destroy public records, which is something that has been reported in recent years

According to a 2011 report by international news agency Reuters, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney spent almost $100,000 in an effort to replace the computer systems he used during his term as governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The former governor also asked technicians at the state archives about how many paper records he could legally destroy.

More recently, the executive assistant to the governor of Oregon was investigated for her alleged inquiries into the possibility of deleting email communications conducted by her boss from state computer systems. The assistant claimed that she wanted to ensure that personal email messages from the governor would not be mixed with official communications; however, the governor’s office should know that any communication made on a government system, even if it is of a personal nature, is subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and thus should be entered into the public record.

What politicians and government officials must always keep in mind is that they are obligated to ensure that official business is kept in the public record. This extends to official business that they conduct on personal email accounts, which they should not be doing in the first place; however, if a government issue is discussed on a Hotmail account, it should be made public in accordance to the FOIA.