ALBANY—The Cuomo administration has now fully implemented a policy of automatically deleting emails of rank-and-file state workers that are more than three months old, resulting in an effective purge of thousands of messages in recent days.
According to memos obtained by Capital, mass deletions began Monday at several state agencies after officials finished consolidating 27 separate email platforms to a single, cloud-based system called Office 365. It lets I.T. administrators purge any older messages, and can be set up to do so each day.
The 90-day deletion policy was first adopted in June of 2013, but its enforcement to date has been haphazard at best, employees and officials say. News of its implementation has drawn fresh concern from good government groups in both New York and elsewhere, who say automatically deleting emails is unnecessary and could stymie access to public information.
The Cuomo administration claims there's no room to save emails older than 3 months, but that is not true:
New York's contract with Microsoft, which developed Office 365, allows for 50 gigabytes of e-mail storage per employee. Reinvent Albany estimated this would be enough to handle up to 30 years worth of messages.
Bob McManus in the NY Post wonders just what Cuomo's trying to hide with the email purge:
Gov. Cuomo is conducting an early spring cleaning of Albany’s e-mails — all of them, right down to cyber bedrock.
But is this a big deal? If you can’t trust Uncle Andrew, who can you trust?
Never mind that US Attorney Preet Bharara — fresh from taking down Sheldon Silver — seems to be breathing right down the gubernatorial neck. “Stay tuned,” the prosecutor warned — with both eyes fixed firmly on Andrew.
Never mind that Cuomo’s former chief of staff, Larry Schwartz, who left as the noose was tightening around Silver’s neck, now can’t find a job — reportedly because of Bharara’s continuing probe.
Never mind that state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman just opened an inquiry into Cuomo’s casino-siting commission.
And never mind that an administration that has cut as many ethical corners as this one — especially regarding campaign-finance regulations and related transgressions — long ago forfeited all presumption to the public’s trust.
What’s important is that Cuomo’s cyber scrubbers soon will have vaporized all e-mail generated by state government that’s more than three months old — eradicating evidence of, well, who knows what.
New Yorkers will never know.
Those who trusted Andrew Cuomo no longer have reason to. Those who didn’t have had their worst suspicions confirmed.
“We must use technology to bring more sunlight to the operation of government,” said Cuomo in 2010.
Two years later, the winds were shifting: “You can always have more transparency.” But “you can’t live your life in a goldfish bowl.”
Now he says, essentially, all that ancient history is just clogging up government and nobody ever looks at it anyway. Which is sort of true — a critical exception being prosecutors tracking down prey.
Does Cuomo have any such concerns? Should he? A reasonable person might ask whether incriminating (or, at least, embarrassing) e-mails relating the administration’s policies, practices and politics are disappearing into the void.
The Daily Gazette also wonders just what Cuomo's trying to hide with the purge:
When someone hastily starts destroying documents for no good reason and with no good explanation, it raises questions.
So when a number of state agencies in the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo began automatically deleting thousands of email files this week after holding onto them only 90 days, those questions turned to suspicions.
What are they trying to hide?
There is no technical or legal reason state workers’ emails need to be destroyed so quickly. In approving this policy back in 2013, state officials said large email files are "difficult to manage and interferes with operations." But they didn't say how.
Keeping large numbers of emails in your own personal file might get cumbersome after a while. Anyone these days who routinely deals with emails has that problem. But how does cleaning out a personal email file and storing those emails in a cloud-based system interfere with the ability of people to do their jobs? It doesn't. So why the haste in destroying the records?
Under the state Freedom of Information Law, email files are treated the same as paper files. Certain ones must be kept for a certain period of time, while others can be regularly discarded.
The problem with the Cuomo administration's blanket policy to hold onto electronic documents for only three months is that the public doesn't know which ones were OK to destroy and which ones should have been kept longer.
And if the state government should ever pass ethics reform requiring more disclosure and transparency, it's likely we'll find out that many of the emails that had been destroyed should have been retained. By then, they'll be long gone and unavailable for public scrutiny.
Right now, the public doesn't even know which departments are following the deletion policy and which ones aren't.
Also, the decision over which emails to destroy and which to keep is being left to individual employees, who are following a cumbersome and complex set of guidelines with no independent oversight.
Leaving sole discretion to individual workers as to how and when to follow the Freedom of Information Law provides neither consistency nor comfort.
With the uncertainty over which emails should be kept and which can be deleted, the state should be erring on the side of keeping them. That's what other government agencies around the country do.
The federal government, for instance, requires that emails from rank-and-file employees be kept for seven years. Some states require that they be kept from two to five years. Even the Central Intelligence Agency has proposed that emails created by outgoing employees be held for three years. Imagine that. A spy agency is less secretive than New York state.
As noted earlier, there appears to be no legitimate technical reason for purging the files so quickly. The space for storage is apparently more than large enough to accommodate all employee emails for a very long time. According to a report in Capital New York, each state employee, under the state contract with Microsoft, is allocated 50 gigabytes of email storage. That's enough to hold tens of thousands of emails, perhaps 30 years worth.
So if it's not a burden on the state's computer system, why does the administration need a policy to get rid of email files after only 90 days? The short answer is: It doesn't.
This indiscriminate purging must be halted right away, before any vital records are destroyed. All the emails generated from now on should be retained until a more concise policy requiring appropriate retention times is put into place.
If the administration insists on continuing to automatically delete so many state documents at such a rapid pace, then the public won't ever be able to find out if it’s hiding something, and if so, what.
Come to think of it, that's probably exactly what they're hoping for.
Cuomo's already under fire for refusing to release his six figure book contract with HarperCollins, owned by News Corporation, after it was revealed that News Corporation has lobbied the Cuomo administration multiple times before and since the contract was given to Cuomo to write his book - a book that has sold less than 3,000 copies.
In addition, Cuomo has refused to add ethics reforms that would affect him to his ethics reform package in the budget - things like closing the LLC loophole that allows rich people to give money multiple times to candidates like the governor through shell companies created just for that purpose - while giving an ultimatum to the legislature over reforms that would affect only them, a move that has led some to call Cuomo a hypocrite over ethics reform.
Finally we have the whole Moreland mess story, which reared itself into the news again this week when Fred Dicker revealed that Larry Schwartz, Cuomo's former secretary, had not left the Cuomo administration in January as an administration statement had stated but was instead still on the state payroll collecting $181,000+ a year in a new position created specifically for Schwartz.
Schwartz was the Cuomo admin official who decreed the Moreland Commission "pull back" subpoenas to Cuomo's donors during the heyday of the corruption commission Cuomo abruptly shut down in March of 2014 and Schwartz was invited to talk to the feds over just those kinds of matters last August, so the funkiness around the Schwartz departure had many wondering just what Cuomo was hiding.
Now comes the massive email purge, which sounds very much like a cover-up of some sort, since the emails don't actually have to be deleted and can simply be archived to the state's cloud account.
It's been reported in the past that Cuomo and the senior minions he has around him don't use any method of communication that has a paper trail - they communicate through Blackberry PIN messages that leaves no trail.
But now Cuomo's having state workers under the senior level purging emails, which smacks of hypocrisy at best, since Cuomo is on record saying this:
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, is no stranger to the consequences of a paper trail. Before becoming governor, he spent four years as state attorney general, a perch from which he witnessed how long-forgotten e-mails could become pivotal during investigations. In 2008, he even accused a top official at the New York Power Authority of “extremely troubling conduct” for deleting e-mails from his BlackBerry as word leaked that he was likely to be investigated by the attorney general’s office.
I wonder what Cuomo, if he were still attorney general, would say about a gubernatorial administration engaged in a massive email purge under false pretenses even as that administration is under at least two investigations (Moreland, casino bids)?
Would he call it "extremely troubling conduct"?
No matter what Cuomo would call it, it certainly counts as "extremely troubling conduct" in my book and something that I hope federal prosecutors investigating Cuomo's administration were prepared for and know how to handle.