HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – On the heels of controversy surrounding presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email account for public business while she was secretary of state, an ABC 27 investigation has uncovered similar practices in the Midstate.
It started when the station filed a right-to-know request for emails to and from Lower Paxton Township supervisors. The request was granted.
As ABC 27 went through the documents, it became clear supervisors were not using their designated email “firstname.lastname@example.org” email listed on the website. Instead, they were using personal Comcast, Hotmail, and Verizon accounts.
That raised the question: why are elected leaders using personal emails for public business?
Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law does not prohibit such use, but Open Records Office Executive Director Erik Arneson says the practice of using private emails does raise ethical questions.
“If government officials were permitted to get around the Right to Know Law simply by using Gmail or Yahoo or something like that, it would blow a hole a mile wide in the Right to Know Law,” Arneson said.
The way the law is written, even emails from private addresses can be considered public record. However, using private emails makes it harder to have accountability and transparency.
“It is definitely best practice for agency business to be done on agency equipment,” Arneson said.
He went on to explain that if the email is on the agency server, the right-to-know officer has director access. It takes more to track private emails down, making it easier for information to slip through the cracks.
“You don’t have the direct ability to physically do it yourself,” Arneson said. “You have to rely on the individual you’re asking.”
“There are, I think, some people who do it just not even thinking, with no malicious intent whatsoever,” Arneson continued, speaking about public leaders who use private emails for public business, “but I do think there are people who do it purposefully with an intent to circumvent public records laws.”
As far as Lower Paxton Township goes, ABC 27 spoke with township manager George Wolfe about the private emails. Wolfe said there is no specific reason the supervisors use their personal accounts, but he did say they don’t use email often. He went on to say they prefer to do business on the phone or face-to-face.
The use of personal email accounts is not limited to Lower Paxton Township.
Susquehanna Township commissioners use personal emails, but the new township manager points out they’re out in the open, listed on the website as the primary form of communication.
Steelton also lists personal email addresses on its website for council members. The new manager says they’re transitioning to borough email addresses in an effort to promote transparency.