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SC Gov. Haley's office zaps emails

Emails between Gov. Nikki Haley and her staff members are being deleted by her administration, meaning their contents are lost forever to the public and S.C. historians.

Under a policy set by the governor's office, only emails between the governor and the public are being saved and archived permanently.

Other emails that Haley sends or receives - including exchanges with her staff members - are being deleted.

Some say the policy violates the state's open-records law, meant to ensure the public has access to government records. Because emails are being deleted, they are not available for the public to review.

"If you fail to retain public documents for some reasonable length of time, it's a violation of (the law)," said Carmen Maye, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association.

Historians and others also worry that Haley's email-deletion policy could result in important correspondence being destroyed. Lost could be emails vital to piecing together the inner workings of Haley's administration, providing an inside look into her dealings with other leaders, and determining how important economic development deals and other state business has been conducted.

Haley, a Republican, was elected governor last year in part on a platform of conducting an open administration, its workings transparent to the public. Openness was an issue because her predecessor, Mark Sanford, had vanished from the state for almost a week, telling no one where he was going or for what reason. (He was having an affair with an Argentine woman.)

In an interview before her election, Haley promised to conduct any state business that she did via email on her state-provided email account, which is open to the public. Haley's office says she has lived up to that and other promises of openness and transparency, adding she discloses more than previous governors including a detailed weekly schedule and her flight log whenever she flies.

Haley's office also stands by its email-deletion policy, saying all important correspondence is kept as is required by the state's open-records law and its record-retention rules. Internal emails are not considered worthy of retention.

They say at least one previous governor, Sanford, had the same policy, adding it is the only logical way to deal with the hundreds of emails that pour into the office and otherwise would overwhelm the office's limited email-storage space.

"The governor and every member of our staff follow both the law and the long-standing policy of the Office of the Governor," said Rob Godfrey, Haley's spokesman. "We always have and we always will."

Staffers say Haley rarely, if ever, uses email to conduct state business, making the retention of all emails pointless.

Instead, Haley relies on the phone and face-to-face meetings, they say.

(Haley staffers used the same business-is-done-face-to-face explanation last week to explain why the governor averaged only one phone call a day on her state-issued cell phone. They said Haley most often uses her office phone or staffers' cell phones.)

A handful of Republican lawmakers confirmed that they rarely if ever receive emails directly from the governor.

Press Association attorney Maye and Jay Bender, also a Press Association attorney, are not convinced the state's document-retention rules allow for any email to and from Haley to be deleted.

"Even if, for the sake of argument, (deleting the emails) is completely acceptable under the (retention) law, that's ludicrous for an office to do so," Maye said. "They're public records."

Older emails deleted

The policy came to light after The State newspaper, under the state's open-records law, requested all of Haley's emails, dating back to her first day in office in January.

The thousands of e-mails between Haley and the public, which permanently are archived by the governor's office, were excluded from the newspaper's request.

The result? No emails prior to Oct. 3. Older emails had been deleted, The State was told.

The emails the paper did receive in response to its open-records-law request were not substantive. They included news clips sent to Haley by staff, a thank-you email from a Hilton Head principal whose middle school the governor visited and three emails from lawmakers reacting to report-card grades that Haley doled out to them in October.

The released emails did not include emails the governor's office previously had released to the newspaper after an open-records request in March.

Those emails helped shape a story that showed S.C. citizens that Haley's office was caught off guard by the public's strong reaction to her decision to replace Darla Moore with a campaign contributor on the University of South Carolina's board of trustees.

The email trail showed Haley and her staff working to craft a message on Moore's replacement and trying to get journalists to report Moore was unresponsive to the governor's effort to meet with her, even though there was no evidence Haley attempted to meet with Moore before deciding to replace her.

More recently, The State has filed open-records requests for Haley's communications concerning her controversial support for the dredging of the Port of Savannah, a competitor to South Carolina's Port of Charleston.

The deadline to fulfill that request has not yet been reached.

Often, internal official emails help the public understand the inner workings of a governor's office.

In 2009, for example, open-records requests helped The State and other media outlets piece together then-Gov. Sanford's disappearance from the state. Released emails showed Sanford's staff did not know where the governor was as they scrambled to figure out what to say to the media.

Losing history?

Guidelines set by the S.C. Department of Archives and History would classify all of Haley's emails, including emails with staff, as "executive correspondence" that should be retained indefinitely.

"Historians in the future would want access to that information to get a good grasp of what elected officials did during their time in office," said Archives director Eric Emerson.

His agency has correspondence dating back to Civil War-era governors that historians and others have used to piece together the state's history.

But state agencies, including the governor's office, do not have to follow the Archives Department's guidelines on which records to retain.

Agencies can set their own internal policies on which emails and other communications to preserve and which to throw out - as long as that policy complies with state law and regulations.

"The fear from a historian's point of view is this important information is forever lost," Emerson said. "We would hope it would be preserved for history."