Aide: Easley wanted e-mail messages deleted

Staff writersFebruary 4, 2010 

  • In 2008, Debbie Crane, a former Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman, was fired by the administration of former Gov. Mike Easley.

    She then told reporters that she and her fellow public information officers had been instructed to delete e-mails to and from the governor's office each day so they would not be backed up at night on the state server.

    Easley's office denied e-mails were deleted, and Easley also denied using private e-mail accounts to get around the public records law. A panel appointed by Easley studied the issue and concluded that the administration did not violate the law by deleting e-mails that had no further "administrative value." The N&O and nine other news organizations sued Easley in April 2008 over "the systematic deletion, destruction or concealment of e-mail messages."

    In one of his last acts as governor in January 2009, Easley signed an executive order requiring his successors to save and archive e-mail in compliance with the law.

  • Former Gov. Mike Easley used a private, secret e-mail account to conduct state business, his former communications directors said in depositions. The e-mail address: "NickDanger" spelled backward.

    Nick Danger is a fictional private eye character featured in radio performances by The Firesign Theatre, a troupe whose 1960s Los Angeles-based act was heavily influenced by The Goon Show, a British troupe that included Peter Sellers and was also a major influence on Monty Python's Flying Circus.

    Easley's spelling "Nick Danger" backward could come from a joke on the show in which Danger, sitting in his office, read his name on his glass office door: "Regnad Kcin."

    Sherri Johnson, Easley's communications director, said she believed the backward spelling was Easley's own.

    "The governor wrote backwards. I mean, when he wrote, he wrote backwards," she said. Which is it? Sounds like a case for Nick Danger.

    To hear an excerpt of a Firesign Theatre radio show, visit: tr.im/MK7l .

  • From the depositions

    From Seth Effron, former deputy press secretary to former Gov. Mike Easley, who was questioned by Hugh Stevens, attorney for media organizations:

    Stevens: Were you aware that e-mail messages that were transferred by private accounts could be public records?

    Effron: Not specifically.

    Stevens: What was your understanding as to what the definition of a public record was?

    Effron: My - my understanding of the definition of a public record, broadly, was anything that was produced in connection with the business of taxpayers.

    Stevens: In your mind, did that include information or records that were created on private e-mail accounts if they related to state business?

    [Objection from a lawyer with the Attorney General's office]

    Effron: I don't know. You know, at the time in particular and even now, I don't know enough to answer that question specifically.

    Stevens: Did you pay attention in those seminars that I led about the public records law when you were working for various newspapers?

    Effron: Yes, I did.

    From the deposition of Renee Hoffman, former press secretary to Easley, questioned by Stevens:

    Hoffman: My recollection is that, on a couple of occasions, both Cari Boyce and Sherri Johnson instructed the PIO's [public information officers] to delete their e-mail to and from the Governor's Office.

    Stevens: Do you recall, first of all, the context in which that happened? Did it happen, for example, in one of those meetings at which the - PIO's were meeting with the Governor's press staff?

    Hoffman: My recollection is that the instruction - I heard Cari give that instruction once during a meeting, and that Sherri called us on the phone another time.

    Stevens: Do you recall whether there - what the circumstances were, or were they - were they related to particular circumstances in your mind or to particular messages?

    Hoffman: I do not recall the circumstances. I do remember the events, and I also remember that I never did that on those instructions.

    From the deposition of Cari Boyce, former communications director to Easley, questioned by Stevens:

    Stevens: Did you ever - did you ever advise or instruct anyone to delete e-mail from their state account?

    Boyce: No.

    Stevens: Did you ever advise or instruct anyone to dispose of a document of any kind that - and not retain it?

    Boyce: No. The - the guidance I gave was to follow the records retention policy.

    Stevens: Did you ever get specific instructions from Governor Easley about responding to a particular public records request?

    Boyce: Not that I recall.

    From the deposition of Sherri Johnson, former communications director for Easley, questioned by Stevens:

    Stevens: What kind of private account did [Easley] have?

    Johnson: What do you mean, 'what kind?'

    Stevens: Well, I mean, was it a Gmail account, a Hotmail account, an R - a Road Runner account?

    Johnson: RR. It was RR.

    Stevens: What was that address?

    Johnson: It was Nick Danger, spelled backwards. And I think it was nc.rr.com, if I remember correctly.

    Later in the deposition, Johnson is asked more detail about the "Nick Danger" address.

    Stevens: I have to ask. Do you know who thought up that?

    Johnson: The governor wrote backwards. I mean, when he wrote, he wrote backwards. ... But how he - I didn't want to ask. I don't - I don't know.

— Former Gov. Mike Easley's press secretary said in sworn testimony that the governor wanted e-mail messages to and from his office deleted so they would not become public.

Renee Hoffman said that Easley, through his Communications Director Sherri Johnson, told public information officers throughout his administration to delete e-mails.

"She instructed me to tell them, tell the [public information officers] to delete their e-mails to and from the Governor's Office, to -- to not write about the Governor's Office in an e-mail, and to not put that instruction to their employees in an e-mail," Hoffman said, according to a deposition in a public records lawsuit filed by The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and several other organizations.

Johnson denied giving that instruction.

Depositions taken last month also show that Easley, a Democrat, used a private, secret e-mail account to conduct state business.

E-mail messages are considered public records, and the newspapers, several other newsgathering organizations and the conservative John Locke Foundation sued after it became clear messages were being deleted.

The state has sought to dismiss the lawsuit, but a judge first wanted to hear the depositions of four members of Easley's communications staff. The depositions show that the administration wanted to avoid having embarrassing information surface through e-mail messages. While key members of Easley's press staff knew Easley used a secret e-mail account, his senior press officers did not ensure that those messages were released in response to public records requests.

Easley finished his second and final term last year. Since then, federal investigators have conducted a wide-ranging investigation into the privileges and benefits that Easley's administration granted to his friends and associates. Ruffin Poole, a close aide to Easley, has been indicted on 51 counts of corruption. The State Board of Elections fined Easley's campaign $100,000 for failing to disclose campaign flights donated by friends and associates.

Before Easley left office, but after the news organizations sued, the governor strengthened the state's policy on e-mail retention. Gov. Bev Perdue, also a Democrat, further toughened the policy and eliminated nearly all discretion employees had to delete e-mail messages. Perdue's administration installed a searchable archive system that captures every message.

"At this point, we don't have any beef with Gov. Perdue," said Hugh Stevens, an attorney for the news organizations. "But the fact that a governor leaves office shouldn't give him a free pass for whatever may have happened on his watch. I think these depositions strongly suggest that our suspicions were well founded."

A spokeswoman for the N.C. attorney general, which is representing Easley's administration in the case, declined to comment Wednesday.

The private account

In her deposition, Hoffman said that both Johnson and Johnson's predecessor, Cari Boyce, told her to instruct public information officers to delete e-mail messages sent to the governor's office. Both Boyce and Johnson, in their own depositions, denied giving that order. Johnson said Reuben Young, Easley's general counsel, encouraged employees to use the phone, rather than send e-mail, to discuss sensitive matters.

Boyce and Johnson do make clear that Easley used a private, personal e-mail account to conduct state business.

The now-defunct address, which used the name "Nick Danger" spelled backward, was secret to all but a select group of senior advisers and associates. Johnson and Boyce said they were not aware of instances when messages from that account were plumbed in response to public records requests. While the communications directors said they primarily communicated with Easley by telephone, messages regularly went to and from that address.

"If you're not attempting to hide your communications from the public, then why use private e-mail accounts to conduct public business? If I were going to set up a system to try to circumvent the public records law, this is how I would do it," Stevens said.

As Easley said himself in an April 2008 interview, messages from a private account would be public records if they dealt with taxpayer business.

"This game that some people play, that 'I conduct state business, but I'll get a private account and it's not public,' No. That makes no difference at all," he told editors and reporters in a meeting shortly before the news organizations filed suit.

During that meeting, Easley said his private e-mail account was used primarily for personal business, although he said members of his staff might sometimes send him snippets of information or key facts.

"None of it would be anything that you'd ever want or that you'd ever be required to keep," Easley said.

Throughout Easley's eight years as governor, scores of public records requests by The N&O and The Charlotte Observer, including a blanket request for every message Easley sent, never turned up a single message from Easley's "Nick Danger" private account.

ben.niolet@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4521

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service