RALEIGH — 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.
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