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Made In New York: The 90-Day Email Shredder

Gov. Andrew Cuomo applauding while looking over his shoulder
Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo by Zack Seward

In the absence of a powerful Speaker of the New York State Assembly, a few Albany legislators seem to have discovered that they have hind legs on which they can stand.

I draw this conclusion from a recent news item in which lawmakers stirred themselves to question at least one of the many practices that would be absurd anywhere else, but which has until now gone unchallenged in Albany.

The New York Times reported that the lawmakers are threatening to overturn an executive branch policy under which most state workers’ emails are automatically erased after 90 days unless the recipient manually earmarks a message for retention. The policy of shredding nearly all the state’s emails comes from the governor’s office, where it has been in place since 2007, but it was not applied statewide until 2013.

It is a sad reflection on New York that the mere fact that there was a newsworthy legislative committee hearing is, itself, newsworthy. Normally, legislative committees in Albany are mere charades, while actual policymaking is done behind closed doors by the governor and the two chambers’ majority leaders. Those notorious “three men in a room” generally consider it unchivalrous to question how each runs his own turf.

One of those three men, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, gave up his post last month after he was indicted on corruption charges. His interim successor, Joseph Morelle, held the position for less than 12 hours before passing it on to Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, never heretofore known as one of the capital’s power brokers. Maybe Heastie will actually be a durable reformer, but given how Albany operates, most likely he simply lacks the clout to impose Silver-style discipline on his colleagues.

The recent committee scrutiny springs from the state’s rollout of a centralized email system, making the 90-day policy much more uniform. Mass deletions reportedly started in late February. Sen. Liz Kruger, one of the legislators planning to challenge the policy, said in an interview, “Ninety days is not only an arbitrary cutoff, it’s a ridiculously short cutoff.” In an era of cheap disk storage, all of those emails could just as easily be kept forever.

Maggie Miller, the state’s newly appointed chief information officer, offered only that the policy was designed to “increase efficiency.” This is true in the sense that it helps the state to efficiently turn down information requests from journalists and citizens. It also opens the door for state employees to simply “forget” to save potentially embarrassing or incriminating emails.

Government in New York thrives in darkness, just like a mushroom. So it is not surprising that both the current state attorney general and his predecessor (who is now the governor) make sure to leave on as few digital lights as possible. These guys know how not to leave a paper trail, especially when no paper is involved. Yet Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has since announced that his office is “suspending” deletions of its emails while the governor and legislators sort out their differences. This sort of political wind-sniffing is characteristic of the state’s top lawmen, who have allowed Albany’s scabrous culture to fester for decades while aiming their press releases elsewhere.

When The Times sought records of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s phone calls, emails, texts and BlackBerry messages last year, the governor’s office provided only heavily redacted phone logs and claimed it had no other records at all. When you don’t save anything, there is nothing to turn over.

In the midst of the national conversation about email retention, largely centering on Hillary Clinton, New York’s apparatus of mass email destruction seems especially tone-deaf. But then again, Albany has long been accustomed to playing by its own rules.

Who cares if the email policy is absurd and indefensible? We are talking about New York, where the word “chutzpah” first arrived at Ellis Island and entered the American lexicon. They do it better than anyone. What is newsworthy is not that New York is trying to operate its government in the dark; it is that at least some legislators are trying to find the light switch.

We will see whether this momentary flicker of legislative independence actually results in a law to create standards that would be taken for granted anywhere else. In New York, such a result would constitute a major government reform.

For now, please turn off the light when you finish reading this column. New York’s government is trying to get some work done.

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