Top Jindal aides use personal email to strategize

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Top officials in

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration used personal email

accounts to craft a media

strategy for imposing hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid

cuts — a method of communication that can make it more difficult

to track under public records laws despite Jindal's pledge to

bring more transparency to state government.

Emails reviewed by The Associated Press reveal that non-state government email addresses were used dozens of times by state

officials to communicate last summer about a public relations offensive for making $523 million in health care cuts. Those

documents weren't provided to AP in response to a public records request.

Jindal, now in his second term, has become a

leading voice among Republican governors and is considered a potential

presidential

candidate. Though Jindal wasn't included in the email discussions

reviewed by the AP, his spokeswoman said the governor uses

a private email account to communicate with immediate staff.

The practice folds into a national debate over the use of personal email accounts by government officials to discuss official

business.

The issue was a prominent one during the administration of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the practice occurred during

former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's term as Massachusetts governor.

Palin's use of private email accounts as

governor prompted a lawsuit in which the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that

officials

using private email accounts for public business need to keep

documents "appropriate for preservation" under the state's records

management act. In response, her successor has instructed

employees to use state email for conducting state business.

While governor in Massachusetts, Romney used

two private email addresses to communicate with aides, develop policy

and political

strategy and edit op-ed articles and press releases. The

communications were legal under Massachusetts law, but state public

officials deemed them public records and subject to archiving.

The head of a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks public records issues said government officials often use private email

accounts to try to sidestep disclosure laws designed to provide sunshine in government.

"Absolutely people use private accounts to

hide things," said Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National

Freedom

of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri. "If

government business is conducted or information about it

is sent or received on personal computers or through personal

email accounts, that does not keep it from being the public's

business."

While some states consider electronic

communications public material and subject to the same restrictions as

paper records,

many others provide little or no oversight. At least 26 states

view the use of private emails as public records, but the rest

have no clear rules or prevailing case law on their use.

The email exchanges in Louisiana took place this past summer, as the Jindal administration was planning steep reductions to

programs for the poor and uninsured because of a drop in federal Medicaid funding.

Participants included Jindal's top budget adviser Kristy Nichols, health care secretary Bruce Greenstein, Greenstein's chief

of staff and health policy adviser, and Jindal's communications staff.

The dozens of conversations held outside the

state's official email system covered subjects such as press releases,

responses

to news coverage of the budget cuts, preparation of an opinion

column to be submitted by Greenstein to newspapers and complaints

about reporters' coverage. The emails were sent mainly through

accounts administered by Google and Yahoo. Jindal wasn't included

in the emails.

Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates said in an

email that the governor has a "private email account that he uses to

communicate

with friends and family and a handful of immediate governor's

office staff." She didn't elaborate on what he knew about the

Medicaid conversations or whether he uses the private account to

conduct state business.

In one exchange, Calder Lynch, a health policy adviser to Greenstein, directs a communications staffer to send certain types

of items to Lynch's personal Gmail account, rather than to use his state government email address.

The emails were provided to AP by an

administration official who participated in the discussions and who

asked not to be identified

because he wasn't authorized to release them.

Jindal campaigned for his first term on a platform of providing more transparency in government.

However, the emails in question weren't among more than 3,800 documents and emails provided to AP by the Department of Health

and Hospitals in response to a request for information on discussions surrounding the health care cuts.

Louisiana's public records law states that all documents used in "the conduct, transaction or performance" of public business

are considered public except in cases where there is a specific exemption.

Administration officials didn't respond directly to questions about whether they were using private email accounts to shield

conversations about public business from disclosure.

"Certainly we believe that conducting public business even when using personal means of communication is subject to public

records law," Nichols, the governor's commissioner of administration, said in a statement.

Bates, the Jindal spokeswoman, agreed with Nichols' assessment and said the governor's office encourages all officials to

conduct state business on state accounts.

Bates didn't directly answer an emailed question about why she and Jindal communications director Kyle Plotkin sent multiple

group emails in July to Greenstein, Nichols and DHH employees using their personal email accounts when talking about news

organizations' coverage of the Medicaid budget cuts.

DHH spokeswoman Kristen Sunde said the department agrees "any state issues discussed over electronic communication are subject

to public records law, regardless of the type of account used."

It's unclear how department attorneys and computer experts who do the leg work in responding to public records requests would

know to check individual employees' personal email accounts for documents complying with a request.

Also, experts say, there's no certainty the individual won't delete public records from a personal account rather than turn

them over.

"You're the only one really who can cough it

up," said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research

Council

of Louisiana, which advocates for transparency in state

government. "It does lend itself to a way of getting around the law,

if it's not properly handled."

Sunde didn't answer a question about why the emails that involved non-state accounts weren't included in the agency's response

to AP's public records request.

She said DHH staff uses state email accounts

for work-related matters, but may use a personal account if employees

are working

remotely, have limited access from a mobile device or are

encountering difficulties with the state email server. Nichols offered

a similar explanation.

After Louisiana's federal Medicaid financing

rate dropped, Jindal decided the largest share of the Medicaid

reductions would

fall on the LSU-run hospitals that care for poor and uninsured

patients. The governor is pushing to shift more care to private

hospitals.

In a July 27 email exchange, six administration officials discussed how to respond to LSU's announcement of where it would

make its budget cuts.

Nichols, then Jindal's deputy chief of

staff, talked of the need to include a reference to "long term strategic

reform" in

the official administration response. Plotkin, the governor's top

communications adviser, struck the word "challenging" from

a description of the cuts. Greenstein agreed to use whatever

statement was devised in coordination with the governor's office

to respond to the LSU cuts.

In a series of emails on July 13 and 14, Plotkin urged Greenstein and his staff to "pen an op-ed from Bruce for all papers

on why LSU hospitals need to transform the way they do biz now with this loss of money."

Using his personal Gmail account, Plotkin sent the message to the personal email accounts of five DHH employees saying, "We

need to get out front on this message."

In another set of conversations about a

requested newspaper correction, Lynch, one of Greenstein's top advisers,

told a department

spokesman not to use a state government email account.

"Please be careful to send stuff from Kyle like what you just sent .... only to my gmail. May have accidentally hit my state

addy (address), but they are very particular," Lynch wrote.

Bunting, of the Missouri-based watchdog

group, said government employees who use private email accounts to

conduct public

business should forward those conversations to public email

addresses and direct others to send emails to their public accounts,

to help ensure those communications are included in response to

public records requests.

When running for office in 2007, Jindal

campaigned on improving government transparency in a state known for its

backroom

political deals, imprisoned elected officials and ongoing

investigations into public corruption. Since then, the governor

has opposed attempts to open more of his office's records to

public scrutiny, and agencies in his executive branch have exerted

new claims of privilege to shield documents.