Blunt approves $2 million e-mail archive

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. _ Gov. Matt Blunt has ordered work to begin on a $2 million plan to archive government e-mails in response to concerns about e-mail deletions in his office and elsewhere.

Blunt had asked the state's computer chief in November to research ways of permanently saving e-mails. That request came after a former staff attorney alleged he had been fired from Blunt's office for questioning its e-mail deletion practices.

Documents obtained through a Sunshine Law request by The Associated Press show that Blunt approved the use of existing state money for the e-mail retention plan on Tuesday. Blunt also directed the state's chief information officer, Dan Ross, to move forward with the plan immediately.

A report by Ross to the governor estimates it will cost more than $1.6 million to set up the e-mail retention system and $486,652 annually to run it.

In December, Blunt suggested to the AP that he might seek legislative approval to spend money on the e-mail archive. But Blunt instead has authorized the release of existing reserve money to get the projected started.

The governor's budget office said that reserve fund contains $1.6 million that can be used for the state's information technology division.

"The governor's reserve exists for unexpected or emergency expenditures and fiscal responsibilities," Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said Wednesday. "An e-mail retention system is essential for transparent and accountable government."

By using existing money, Blunt will not need to seek legislative approval for the start-up of the e-mail archive. But Robinson said the governor would ask legislators to appropriate $500,000 in next year's budget to cover the ongoing costs.

The report prepared by Ross projects that the e-mail archive system should be operational by July 1 for all 40,000 e-mail boxes managed by the Office of Administration's Information Technology Services Division.

That state computer system handles about 1.5 million e-mails a day. It includes executive branch agencies, except for the departments of Transportation, Conservation and Natural Resources and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which operate their own e-mail systems. Separate systems also handle the e-mails for the judiciary, Legislature and other statewide elected officials besides the governor and lieutenant governor.

The cost of installing and operating the e-mail archive would rise if other officials or departments choose to join it — a move Blunt encouraged in his letter directing work on the system to begin.

The report by Ross recommends the state contract with Symantec Corp., a Cupertino, Calif.-based business whose archiving product was rated the best among four tested by the state.

State e-mail retention policies drew public attention last September after the Springfield News-Leader reported that Blunt's office had denied an open-records request for e-mails from his chief of staff, Ed Martin. Martin, who has since resigned, told the newspaper that he didn't save the e-mails.

Blunt later acknowledged that he and his staff routinely delete some e-mails, though Blunt has denied that his office violates the state Sunshine Law. Others in government, including staff for Attorney General Jay Nixon, also have acknowledged deleting some e-mails but denied any Sunshine Law violations.

E-mails are considered public records just like paper documents. But the state's document retention policies allow some records to be disposed of sooner than others, depending on their nature.

Last week, former Blunt attorney Scott Eckersley sued the governor and four past or present staff members on allegations that he was defamed and fired in retaliation for advising the governor's office it was violating the Sunshine Law by deleting e-mails.

Eckersley's lawsuit claims top Blunt aides directed staff in his office and other agencies to destroy e-mails to avoid providing information sought under public-records requests.

Blunt has declined to answer questions about that allegation, but he has defended the firing of Eckersley as performance-related and denied his dismissal had anything to do with e-mail deletions.

Workers in the state data center typically reuse the backup computer tapes that store government e-mails every few months. But they have said they started saving those tapes last fall, when the e-mail deletion controversy arose.

The new e-mail retention system would allow old e-mails to more easily be saved and searched in compliance with open-records requests. Ross recommended in his report to the governor that the archived e-mails be kept for seven years, which he said is the same time required by the federal government for the retention of financial records.