Romney’s missing hard drives raise questions over government records
It appears it was legal for Mitt Romney’s aides, on their way out of the governor’s office in Massachusetts in 2006, to write personal checks for $65 each to buy the hard drives from their state office computers, taking with them government emails and other records of his administration, including information about the birth of the Romney health care insurance mandate.
It was legal for the Romney administration to spend $97,000 in public money to swap out computers and email servers, making sure that emails never got into the hands of the public, journalists, historians and, not incidentally as Romney himself points out, his opponents in the 2012 presidential campaign.
And the Romney administration got legal permission, Reuters reported Thursday evening, to destroy 150 boxes of government records.
But illegality is not the only test, say advocates of open government, who wonder when the public will insist that all candidates for high office do more than give lip service to transparency.
“Public officials need an attitude adjustment,” said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri. “They need to recognize that the instruments of the government don’t belong to them. They belong to the people. Self-government doesn’t work without information. Government records, including emails, ought to be available without filing a lawsuit, without any more than a keystroke.”
“Here’s the irony,” Bunting added. “In a roundabout way, Romney and his aides may have done a favor for open government. I would imagine that, for the citizens of Massachusetts, buying your hard drive so things disappear doesn’t pass the smell test. Everybody’s going to know it was done for the purpose of hiding information from the public. Even if that’s perfectly legal, people would say, ‘How can they get away with that?’ Maybe there will be a move to change the law.”
The facts so far
Here’s what’s known about the case of the purged emails and missing boxes:
On Nov. 17, The Boston Globe reported that 11 members of Romney’s staff bought 17 computer hard drives five years earlier. Of course, the staff were buying more than a used hard drive — they were buying the government records on those hard drives. What about the backup copies on state servers? Other computers in the governor’s office were replaced as part of “routine maintenance.”
Reuters moved the story forward on Dec. 6, documenting that the Romney administration spent $97,000 to replace computers, causing other emails to be lost. On its way out the door, the Romney team spent $205,000 for a three-year lease on computers for the governor’s office, replacing a lease that had provided the same number of computers for $108,000.
Aides to Romney’s successor, Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, said they can’t fulfill public records requests for the Romney administration’s emails because the emails are gone. A spokesman for Romney’s campaign blamed Patrick, a supporter of President Obama, for encouraging requests for public records, but didn’t answer the question why the state computers were replaced, making the records unavailable to the public.
Then this Thursday, Reuters reported that the Romney administration got permission to destroy 150 boxes of paper records. A Romney spokeswoman wouldn’t say whether the records were actually destroyed, but said the law was followed.