Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hey Globe, Where Have You Been for the Past 16 Years?

The Boston Globe buried a story on page 20 of their paper that is probably the biggest shot of this election campaign: that several of Mayor Thomas Menino's top officials have been deleting all their emails on a daily basis, thereby likely violating state law by destroying those public records.

A quick look through my own email shows nineteen emails either to or from two specific city officials cited in the Globe article -- and a twentieth email on mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea's blog -- that should have been archived during the past two years, but appear not to have been. On the face of it, those are possibly twenty specific violations of the state Public Records Law that each carry a potential penalty of up to $500 and/or one year in prison.

After reading the story, I am left with a jaw-dropping question: Why did it take the Globe 16 years to figure out that Menino's closest adviser was deleting all his electronic records?

I am dumbstruck that the paper of record in Boston does not appear to have requested such electronic public records from Michael Kineavy or Thomas Tinlin during all this time -- or at least realized what was going on when all their public records requests came for naught.

Hey Globe, where have you been all this time?

The Globe deserves some credit, nonetheless, for doing some serious investigative reporting this year leading up to the mayoral election later this month. It is important for residents to know what their city and elected officials have been doing so that they can make an informed choice to re-elect Menino or choose someone else.

The Globe mentions Michael Kineavy, the city's chief of policy and planning, and Thomas Tinlin, the commissioner of the transportation department, as producing zero emails in a request for all emails from a specific time period -- i.e., no incoming or outgoing emails. The Globe story states that the city has admitted the problem, and the corporation counsel, William Sinnott, is in the process of addressing it.

Public records of all kinds must be maintained for a minimum of two years under the state's Public Records Law. While it might appear at first to be difficult to prove that a person has deleted public records -- because the files are, by the nature of the violation, deleted -- there are independent ways to determine if such public records should exist, because other people are on the list of recipients or senders of those emails.

A quick look through my email indicates:
  • Thirteen emails, written by other people, addressed to Tinlin in the time period 7/23/07 - 8/24/08;
  • Two emails written by Tinlin on 8/11/08; and
  • Four emails, written by other people, addressed to Kineavy between 12/14/07 and 5/15/08.
That's 19 specific cases of emails that should have been archived as public records under state law, but appear not to have been; McCrea's letter makes it an even 20. I'm sure that other people around the city can produce their own lists of emails, sent to or received from these two city officials, that ought to be archived by the city as public records. An easy way the Globe could find more such emails would be to submit a public records request, say, to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for all emails written by or received by BRA employees that include Kineavy and/or Tinlin in the To/cc/From header fields.

Left unanswered in the Globe story was the motivation of both Tinlin and Kineavy in systematically deleting these email public records. Were they trying to hide the trail behind controversial (or worse) actions on their part? Until we hear more from them directly to explain their actions, this story will not likely go away.

There is no question that city employees should be saving their emails. An easy way? Move them into folders when you are done reading them in your inbox. That's what most other people do.

As for the Globe? When you finally get a scoop like this, why do you bury it on page 20 of the Sunday paper?

Update: Boston City Councilor-At-Large and mayoral challenger Michael Flaherty has announced that on Monday he will request state Attorney General Martha Coakley and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley to investigate the allegedly improper or illegal deletion of electronic public records by officials in the Menino administration.

Update 2: Flaherty will be joined by both of the other mayoral challengers, Kevin McCrea and Councilor-At-Large Sam Yoon, in calling for the investigation during a Monday morning press conference.

Image of a paper shredder by Shane Vigil provided through a Creative Commons license.

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