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Cuomo Gets Blowback On 90 Day Email Deletion Policy

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been getting some bipartisan criticism from state lawmakers over an email policy that erases all electronic correspondence of state employees after 90 days.

The policy to delete the emails of state employees after three months has been in place for some time, but is only now being enforced. It was revealed during a recent budget hearing, where Governor Cuomo’s chief Information Officer Maggie Miller testified before skeptical state lawmakers .

Miller was queried by Senator Patrick Gallivan, a Buffalo area Republican, who said critics charge it “flies in the face of transparency and accountability of state government."

Miler likened the deletions to an old fashioned paper inbox that becomes overstuffed.

“The same is true in the digital era,” Miller said. “If something is in your inbox unattended to for three months, it can probably go.”

She said the practice also encourages "prudent behavior" and  "responsible use of state resources."

But Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, a Democrat form Manhattan, asked how state officials would be able to respond to Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests from citizens and the media, if all of the emails had been deleted.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating state lawmakers, and recently arrested former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on fraud charges.  Emails were a key part of building  that case, as well as other cases.

“If the New York Assembly announced tomorrow that we were going to take up this policy, Preet Bharara would be at the court door making sure that we did not,” O Donnell said.

Miller says there will be exceptions for legal challenges or FOIL, but the state official or employee would have to decide which emails should be retained. O’Donnell points out that many investigations come after three months have elapsed.

Senator Liz Krueger, also a Democrat from Manhattan,  says the policy could  actually have the opposite effect, and aid state officials in hiding what they don’t want revealed.

“You disappear the email, it’s all gone, there was no complaint,” she said.

Miler answered that three months is long enough to deal “expeditiously” with any incoming mail.

Krueger was so concerned about what she heard that she’s drafted a bill to require that New York State follow the federal government’s policy of keeping all email correspondence for seven years. She says it’s important for historical purposes as well.

“Email has become the default communication,” she said.

Senator Krueger says the email records can also protect state employees and help in their defense if they are sued.

Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Republican from the Capital Region, is proposing a similar measure. He calls the deletion policy an “egregious abuse of power." 

“There’s zero need to do this other than to cover somebody’s tracks or to cover up corruption,” McLaughlin said. “Those are the only explainable reasons for deleting emails this quickly.”

McLaughlin says there have been high profile sexual harassment cases in the Assembly recently, and emails can be key evidence for a victim documenting their complaint.

The governor’s office clarifies what Chief Information Officer Miller said in the hearing.  They say the 90 day email deletion policy was actually implemented in 2007, under former Governor Eliot Spitzer. But recently, over two dozen older email systems were consolidated into one cloud based unit, and the state is saving $3 million dollars a year by purging the emails every three months.

The bill to change the deletion policy is gaining support. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, says he’d support a law to preserve the emails longer.  

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.