By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — Top officials in Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration have used their personal email accounts for government work — a practice often derided by government watchdogs because it can be a way to keep the emails secret.
In fact, a Louisiana official Ricketts tapped to be his Medicaid director came under fire for just that while working in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Ricketts’ appointee, Calder Lynch, was among the Louisiana officials that used personal emails to strategize on millions of dollars in Medicaid cuts.
Ricketts has said his administration will be transparent, but he’s already raised eyebrows by deciding to personally pay his former campaign communications director, Jessica Moenning, to be a senior adviser.
And during his first month in office, Ricketts and some of his top staffers used private emails to talk about official work, which often riles up reporters and government watchdogs because some officials do it to get around open records laws.
However, Ricketts doesn’t appear to be hiding the private emails: After getting a records request from state Democratic Party chairman Vince Powers regarding Moenning, the Ricketts administration released a couple of emails generated on private accounts (although they redacted the private email addresses).
For example, on Jan. 17, Moenning sent an email with a draft of the governor’s State of the State speech to the private email accounts of Ricketts, his chief of staff, Matt Miltenberger and his public relations director, Taylor Gage. Moenning also sent an email proposing a job description for Ricketts’ communications director to Miltenberger and Ricketts’ private emails.
Both emails were turned over to Powers.
In 26 states, private emails written by public officials regarding official business are considered public records. However, according to a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, state statutes don’t address the issue and there’s been no specific court ruling on the issue in Nebraska. There was a 2012 attorney general’s opinion on the matter in a Gage County case saying the emails are public if they deal with official business.
Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska, said government business conducted on private computers should be open to public records requests.
“Efforts to avoid public scrutiny are illegal,” he said. “This applies to the governor and all other public officials.”
Gage said the governor’s office turned over all the emails Powers requested, including emails Moenning sent to staffers’ personal email accounts. He noted Moenning sent the emails to the staffers’ private accounts, but they did not reply on them.
“In the Ricketts administration, state employees are instructed to use state emails for state business,” he said.
Lynch, along with all directors, will be educated about the state public records law during orientation, Gage said.
Powers said he has a problem with the Ricketts administration using private emails, even though they turned over two private emails.
“Public business should be done on the public emails,” Powers said. “It protects the citizens and frankly it protects the government officials because using private emails — we never know if everything’s been turned over.”
Using government email accounts automatically subjects the content to the open records law, but using private emails raises the question of whether those private email accounts are subject to public inspection, Powers said.
He noted the Ricketts administration didn’t turn over everything he asked for, such as the governor’s and Moenning’s calendars.
“In less than a month, it’s become very obvious to most Nebraskans that the governor’s administration does not understand that public service does not mean secret service,” Powers said.
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