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Top Jindal aides use personal email to strategize

Monday - 12/10/2012, 4:47pm  ET

Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (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.

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