I-Team: Maine lawmakers routinely use private email for public business

The I-Team discovers some Maine lawmakers routinely bypass the state email server and use their personal accounts for state business, raising questions of transparency and accountability. (WGME)

AUGUSTA (WGME) — Private email for public business was a front and center controversy during the presidential election.

Now the I-Team discovers some Maine lawmakers routinely bypass the state email server and use their personal accounts for state business, raising questions of transparency and accountability.

Even when they're in session, most Maine lawmakers are never far from their devices and their emails, in constant contact with lobbyists, donors, and their constituents.

"It has become so important in conducting business," said Grant Pennoyer, executive director, Maine legislature.

All Maine lawmakers are given an official email address and are asked to use it, according to Pennoyer.

"Legislative business is done on your legislative email," said Rep. Kevin Battle (I-South Portland).

Battle said it's pretty straightforward, but the I-Team counted 14 of our 35 state senators listing a personal email address on his or her senate bio page and most told us they routinely use those personal accounts.

"That's not the way to govern," said the Sunlight Foundation's Alexander Howard.

Advocates for open government say here's why you should care: personal emails meant to be public records can easily stay under wraps. The Sunlight Foundation calls the issue a top concern at all levels of government.

"They're trying to make decisions, governing decisions, without having the scrutiny and the accountability.

Pennoyer explains it like this: when legislators use the state server, the emails are kept as public records, easily searched, and accessible to the public.

"It's automatically saved, archived and backed up," Pennoyer said.

When legislators use personal email accounts, email can be deleted with no official public record leaving lawmakers are on their own with no oversight — just expected to follow state law and release email records when requested.

"They can be lost intentionally or accidentally; they can also be compromised by hacking. There's the fact of transparency and there's the appearance of transparency and both are at stake," Portland attorney Sigmund Schutz said.

According to a memo from Governor Paul LePage, state employees are not allowed "to conduct state business through personal email accounts"

LePage put the policy in place two years ago after a document shredding controversy at the state Center for Disease Control, but Pennoyer said this policy does not apply to state legislators.

"It's not a specific requirement, strongly encouraged," Pennoyer said.

While not against the rules in Maine, the practice of public officials using personal email accounts for government business has been widely criticized on the national stage.

"That was a mistake, and I take responsibility for using a personal email account," presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau uses an AOL account for his email. He said he understands under Maine law, his official email account and personal account are both subject to public records requests. But without an official record, there's no way of knowing if personal emails are being withheld.

"We should all recognize that and be cognizant of our obligation to be transparent. Thank you for updating me on how this system works, and I will talk with Mr. Pennoyer about this," Thibodeau said.

While lawmakers on Maine's other side of the state house, the House of Representatives, all list an official email address, we found some of them still use their personal accounts.

"They do have the ability to re-direct so it comes into their email and they can then re-direct to their private email," Pennoyer explained.

Last fall, Rep. Steve Wood sent a Massachusetts woman a controversial email after she was critical of Governor LePage.

He thanked her for not visiting Maine and included a derogatory slang, often used to describe people from Massachusetts. That was sent from his gmail account.

Wood later apologized and that, too, was sent from his gmail.

The emails only became public because the recipient sent them to us.

"We've asked them if they do reply from their private server they at least copy their legislative email address," Pennoyer said.

But we found that doesn't consistently happen.

"It's smart; I can see. If they're pushing that, I will try doing that," Sen. David Miramant (D-District 12).

Legislators do have a right to keep certain emails regarding their legislation confidential through the end of the legislative session.

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