Sunday, January 27, 2008

"It's part of our American heritage that we don't trust people in power and that we keep an eye on them. "

Gov. Perry's e-mail thorn comes in form of Wisconsin man

Wisconsin man intervenes to halt message destruction

January 27, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN – To hear the governor's office tell it, John Washburn is a guy who has heaved a mighty wrench more than 3,000 miles and is gumming up their work.

Mr. Washburn, a 45-year-old computer software tester from Wisconsin, wouldn't disagree. He just believes the mechanism needed some strong gum.

Mr. Washburn learned three months ago from a blog that the governor's office automatically destroys virtually all of its e-mails every seven days, a period he found to be "obnoxiously short."

So Mr. Washburn decided to single-handedly force the office to keep the messages longer. He developed a computer program that automatically, every four days, asks for all e-mails to and from staffers in Gov. Rick Perry's office – because documents sought under state open-records laws must be retained.

He just received the first batch – covering four days in early November 2007. It includes more than 8,000 e-mails and would fill more than 20,000 printed pages. He promptly posted them on the Internet last week.

A few are slightly titillating, including the press secretary's apparent agreement with the political opponent of a state senator, who called her an "evil, vindictive, mean woman."

Others are the stuff of all offices: permission to arrive late because of doctor appointments, invitations to meetings, who's bringing what to the office potluck.

The governor's office is still perturbed by Mr. Washburn's blanket request, saying it is forcing more than 200 people to stop work, copy all their e-mails and save them every day.

Press secretary Robert Black conceded that the request is prompting workers to withhold their more candid thoughts from e-mails. "It probably has made staff use the telephone a whole lot more," he said.

To Mr. Washburn, public records are the flashlight into the dark rooms of government. It began in 2004, when he started examining voting irregularities in Wisconsin's presidential election. He then sought election records in Florida and decided to jump into the Texas fray, thinking it would be easy.

"I thought I would be wading in the shallow end, but the next moment I'm swimming out in the deep," Mr. Washburn said last week.

The Texas requests have been challenged, and a review by the attorney general is pending. Mr. Washburn has had to find a lawyer who will work for free and explain his actions to a patient wife, who nevertheless wavers between whether he's "eccentric or insane," he said with a laugh.

But he said the Texas battle is important because while most don't care about records retention, it's the only way to learn about the inner workings of government.

"It's part of our American heritage that we don't trust people in power and that we keep an eye on them. We, as the inheritors of our country, should think of this as part of our duty," he said.

Mr. Washburn said some of the advice, ideas and scheduled meetings that go into the governor's e-mails might be the seeds to major policies and billions of dollars. Once the e-mails are destroyed, citizens will never know how the policies were formulated.

He is the father of three and a self-described Republican. He's had to work on his open-records request until 3 a.m. some mornings, and he's trying to raise money to pay for the records – the governor is charging $5,111 to fulfill all nine requests for e-mails from Nov. 2 through Dec. 3. So far, Mr. Washburn has paid for the first batch – $568. The bulk of the cost, the governor's office says, comes from the time needed to go through the e-mails and redact personal information.

Mr. Washburn said the governor's office should store e-mails on a server, some of which can be dedicated to e-mails that are public records. Then record requests could be answered with virtually no cost or staff time. He's even volunteered to write the software to do this. (The governor's staff declined.)

Mr. Black said the office, prompted by the Washburn request, is exploring a technology upgrade.

"The way our system is set up now, when something like this comes along, the gears have to stop and everyone has to stop and collect these e-mails manually. It's certainly not the highest and best use of staff time," he said.

The governor's office keeps policy papers and certain correspondence for at least one year. But most e-mails have been defined as "transitory" material – akin to envelopes and Post-it notes – that can be tossed after a week. The policy started under Gov. George W. Bush and was never changed, Mr. Black said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Washburn has been assailed by Republicans, who question his party loyalty, and hailed by open-government advocates, who named him "Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week."

But so far, he has no regrets.

"It's been enlightening," Mr. Washburn said. "And it's what citizens should be doing."

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