Public Officials' Private Emails Allow Them to Evade Scrutiny

Government officials using private, personal emails usually do it because it allows them to evade public disclosure. Hillary Clinton was just the latest to skirt public disclosure when she used a private account while Secretary of State. 

In California, the law remains unsettled. In a case pending at the California Supreme Court, City of San Jose v. Superior Court (Smith), a citizen has challenged the City of San Jose's refusal of a public records request to release emails from city councilmembers and staff because they were conducted via private email and on personal devices.

Covered California's board members use only private email accounts. The health exchange used the gray area to refuse a Consumer Watchdog request to release emails between board members and the health insurance industry, essentially allowing them to conduct back-channel communications. 

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration believes there is no law governing state officials’ use of personal email. But as a matter of general policy and practice, he said, the Governor’s Office encourages that official business be done on government email accounts.”

Consumer Watchdog demanded that Covered California release emails in 2014 between the health exchange's board members and insurance companies as part of a public records request.  The exchange said board members don't have official exchange email accounts; they're all personal accounts, so any emails sent or received are personal and don't have to be made public. 

Eventually, after the November 2014 election, Covered California released some emails that revealed a symbiotic relationship between the exchange and industry insiders. 

Terry Francke, general counsel to Californians Aware, suggested a legislative solution: a flat prohibition against sending any email on a private account and a requirement to turn over to the agencies any incoming emails that land there.

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