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How Andrew Cuomo Broke His Promise for a Transparent Government

The staff of the New York Governor have adopted a similar stealth tactic used by Sarah Palin and the Chris Christie administration.
 
 
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Adopting a tactic that has been used by officials ranging from Sarah Palin to staffers of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are sending emails from private accounts to conduct official business.

I know because I got one myself. And three other people who interact with the governor's office on policy or media matters told me they have too. None of the others wanted to be named.

The tactic appears to be another item in the toolbox of an administration that, despite Cuomo's early vows of unprecedented transparency, has become known for an obsession with secrecy. Emailing from private accounts can help officials hide communications and discussions that are supposed to be available to the public.

"Government business should never be conducted through private email accounts. Not only does it make it difficult to retrieve what is a government record, but it just invites the suspicion that a government employee is attempting to evade accountability by supervisors and the public," said Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, a frequent requester of records under the state's Freedom of Information Law.

Emailing from private accounts also may violate state policy. State employees are not to "use a personal email account to conduct State business unless explicitly authorized," according to a policy bearing the governor's name published by the Office of Information Technology Services.

The Cuomo administration declined to comment on whether any employees are authorized to use private accounts.

Back when he was running for governor, Cuomo pledged, "We must use technology to bring more sunlight to the operation of government."

The governor himself uses a BlackBerry messaging system that does not save messages to communicate with aides, the Daily News reported in 2012. Under the Freedom of Information Law, those records would typically not have to be released because there is an exemption for internal deliberative material.

But emails with anyone outside of the administration -- such as lobbyists, company executives, or reporters -- usually have to be made public upon request. It is for those communications, with people outside the administration, that private email accounts have been used.

Last year, I was poking around on a possible story and filed some public records requests that sought emails from Director of State Operations Howard Glaser, a top Cuomo adviser. One day in October, just hours after filing a request with the governor's office, an email appeared in my inbox from Glaser himself.

The email, inquiring what I was working on, was sent from a @glasergroup.net address rather than a government account. The note had a signature line about not using the email address for official business (even though it appeared to be doing just that). My interest was piqued.

So I filed a request under the state's Freedom of Information Law, asking for all records sent to and from Glaser's private account. It is not supposed to matter if an email is sent from an official account or a private one: If it pertains to government business, it typically has to be released.

A couple of months later, the Cuomo administration responded with a terse denial: "Please be advised that the New York State Executive Chamber has conducted a diligent search, but does not possess records responsive to your request."

I appealed, noting that I had in my possession a record responsive to the request -- Glaser's email to me -- and included it as an attachment.

The administration upheld its original denial, now citing a retention issue.

 
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