With the election just six weeks away, a Republican state senator is calling for an investigation into how Gov. Steve Bullock, who is running for re-election, disposed of emails when he left the attorney general’s office.
The move echoes efforts by Republican candidate Greg Gianforte’s campaign to align Bullock in the eyes of voters with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, who has faced scrutiny over her use of a personal email server during her time as Secretary of State.
Earlier this year Bullock was under fire for using a private email account to conduct state business. In July, it was discovered emails from Bullock when he was the state’s attorney general, as well as his appointed staff members, were deleted after his four-year term ended in 2013 and Republican Tim Fox was elected to the office. Bullock ran for governor and was elected in 2012.
The effort to draw connections for voters between Bullock and Clinton makes sense as a political move, said Rob Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana.
“Hillary Clinton is really quite unpopular nationally and one assumes that in Montana that’s even more the case given the general Republican leaning in the state,” Saldin said Tuesday.
The email narrative provides another way in the door for Republicans, he continued.
“You also have this nice parallel. Hillary Clinton has come under a lot of fire for her emails in her time as secretary of state and the Republicans in Montana are trying to make an issue of Steve Bullock’s emails.”
On Monday, state Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, sent a note to Fox asking him to conduct an inquiry to determine why Bullock’s emails from his time as attorney general were deleted instead of transferred to the state archives.
The state Department of Administration has said Bullock’s emails were disposed of in a way consistent with ordinary procedure.
Retention is determined by content, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office said in an email Wednesday.
The content of emails determine whether the email is an official record, a transitory record or a permanent record. This determination is made by each agency individually.
Transitory records have a 30-day retention period or when business is complete. Transitory records include things like cover messages, routine questions and answers, and informal office notes.
The Montana Historical Society is responsible for managing and preserving records from statewide officials that are deemed worthy of preservation. This determination is made by the official, such as the attorney general or state auditor, and the staff of the Montana Historical Society.
The state does not have a cohesive infrastructure for managing or preserving electronic records, said Molly Kruckenberg, who leads the Montana Historical Society’s Research Center. A member of her staff, the state archivist, sits on the state committee charged with overseeing records management and requests for deletions, but was unavailable for comment because she is on vacation.
Kruckenberg said the laws are clear that the same retention rules apply regardless of whether a record is made of paper or kept electronically, but the state has not yet paid for the infrastructure or developed a plan for how best to preserve digital records and ensure that they reach the historical society archives.
The 2015 Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have provided funding to develop and start to implement a digital records management plan. As it stands, Kruckenberg said the historical society does not have the infrastructure to accept electronic records, including emails. Until they do, it is the responsibility of each agency to maintain those.
“I don’t believe we have emails from any previous attorney general here,” she said. “That’s not to say they’re not retained somewhere else in state government, but they’re not here.”
The State Information Technology Services Division issues the Montana Operations Manual for Electronic Mail Policy. The policy states that employees should delete items from their inbox and sent items when they are no longer needed. If an email needs to be retained, employees are supposed to move it to an archive folder, disk or print it. The need for retention of an item should be re-evaluated after it has been stored for six months.
Request for disposal is not necessary if the content is transitory and falls under the division’s policy. There were no requests for disposal to the State Records Committee from Bullock’s office when he was attorney general.
The Secretary of State’s office also could not immediately confirm if emails from previous administrations had been preserved and to what extent.
A law passed in 2015, after Bullock left the attorney general’s office, spells out more clearly that outgoing administrations must turn over records to incoming staff. What’s not clear in Bullock’s situation is if the deleted emails would have been required to be kept under the previous law since the emails no longer exist.
“Closing an email account is normal procedure when an employee leaves state employment or moves between branches or agencies,”said Lynne Pizzini, Montana’s chief information security officer. “The state does not store emails from thousands of former state employees and former elected officials due to the high volume and cost of that storage.”
Sales called “the wholesale deletion of state emails under Gov. Bullock’s watch … very troubling.” Sales is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight responsibility over the Montana Department of Justice, which is under the Attorney General’s office.
He asked the attorney general to determine who ordered the destruction of the emails and if the State Records Committee ever gave Bullock or his senior staff permission to delete the emails and when it happened. Sales asked Fox to prepare a report for his review within 20 days.
The Attorney General’s office is reviewing Sales’ complaint and will respond within his requested time frame, according to a statement from spokesman John Barnes. State law does not grant specific authority for Fox’s office to investigate violations of record retention laws.
Barnes said in a statement last week that his office has “confirmed with our Justice Information Technology Services Division staff that no one in their division was directed to destroy or delete any email messages by anyone in the outgoing Bullock administration. Similarly, JITSD was not directed to save or transfer any email messages when the previous administration departed.”
Barnes continued: “We are troubled that the previous administration did not retain any of the email messages generated during the four years previous to Fox taking office. However, we cannot fully know whether public record retention requirements were followed by former Attorney General Bullock’s administration without knowing what email messages previously existed.”
Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel questioned the motives of Sales’ letter.
“Sen. Sales is wrong and hopefully isn’t abusing his elected office to do the bidding of a political campaign. Gov. Bullock never deleted his email account; it simply ended with his tenure as Attorney General. If the Legislature deems it appropriate to spend taxpayer money to preserve countless email records from years past, Sen. Sales should lead by example and propose a bill rather than waste taxpayer money playing games with it.”