RALEIGH — On his last day as governor, Mike Easley signed an executive order declaring that e-mail messages are just like other public records and should be saved, a move that surprised the news organizations that sued him over the issue.
The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and eight other news organizations sued Easley in April after it had become clear that some employees in his administration were deleting e-mail messages to keep them from becoming public. Easley's order Friday stops short of granting everything the news organizations had asked for. The thrust of the order -- that e-mail messages are public records and should generally be kept -- was a key principle for which the newspapers had argued.
"I wish he had sent it to us or issued it months ago, because we might well have been able to resolve the lawsuit on his watch," said Hugh Stevens, a lawyer for the news organizations.
Gov. Beverly Perdue learned of the order Friday. Perdue has said e-mail messages should not be deleted. Because she is the governor, Perdue is now the defendant in the lawsuit. She said she is not ready to sign off on Easley's order.
"We are reviewing that process and that executive order to see if changes are necessary," she said, "but I think that Governor Easley did a good thing for the people on Friday when he issued that executive order."
Easley, like Perdue a Democrat, did not respond to a message left with his former press officers. Franklin Freeman, a senior advisor to Easley, said Easley signed the order on his last day because he had been busy.
"The governor had been occupied with a lot of matters in the last few months," Freeman said. "It was timely in the governor's view to enter it."
The order was a surprise because negotiations over the still-active lawsuit had all but ceased. As late as December, Easley said that he would not give the news organizations what they sought and that he believed The N&O and The Charlotte Observer, both owned by Sacramento-based McClatchy Co., were writing stories critical of his administration because of the lawsuit. His comments were the last anyone who had joined the lawsuit heard about the issue until Easley signed his order.
"It was a fitting end to a puzzling tenure," said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh think tank that publishes the Carolina Journal and is a party to the lawsuit. "I guess the idea caught him on a good day and he said, 'OK.' "
Freeman said Easley modeled the order on the recommendations of an advisory panel Easley commissioned after it became clear some state employees had deleted e-mail messages. The order calls on state officials to buy a new archive system to preserve messages.
Governors and their e-mail messages have been the subject of lawsuits in other states.
Outgoing Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt settled a costly lawsuit last month that accused the governor of breaking the law by denying the public access to e-mail messages. On Monday, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that e-mail messages between Gov. Jon S. Corzine and his ex-girlfriend can remain private after a Republican leader and several news organizations sued.
Easley has defended the right of state employees to decide which e-mail messages are public documents and which messages are irrelevant, including spam messages or personal notes such as lunch invitations. His order appears to grant employees the discretion to delete messages they believe are not relevant to state business.
"I have concerns about that," said John Drescher, executive editor of The N&O.
A settlement proposed by the newspapers would require state employees to keep all messages -- even spam messages -- for 24 hours, which would ensure the state's current backup system would have a record of all messages. Drescher said the lawsuit arose because state employees were deleting messages quickly to avoid the state's backup system creating any record of them.
"We clearly want to prevent that," he said.
Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer, said the order may leave employees confused about what to do with e-mail messages.
"It does a lot of what we asked for, but the language is too vague in some places," Thames said.
A spokesman for Perdue said that for now, state employees should keep all e-mail messages at least 24 hours.
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