When he took office in 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal got a lot of press around the state — and the nation — by swearing his administration would be the most transparent in Louisiana history. Since then, we've seen time and again that Jindal's mantra is "Transparency for thee, but not for me," as he tightened disclosure laws for other public officials while shrouding his own office in secrecy.
Now the administration has taken it a step further. In a Dec. 10 article, the Associated Press' Melinda Deslatte noted 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." Moreover: "Those documents weren't provided to AP in response to a public records request."
We note that none of the emails were penned by Jindal himself, but many were written by his top appointees and their subordinates, including Communications Director Kyle Plotkin and Calder Lynch, a senior health policy adviser to Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein. Plotkin used his personal Gmail account to discuss the administration's "message" on draconian LSU hospital cuts, while Lynch specifically cautioned correspondents to use private email rather than "my state addy."
Bottom line: Team Jindal broke the law, covered it up, and lied about it.
Public officials' attempts to skirt the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or their own states' "sunshine laws" are on the rise. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in October, alleging a pattern of senior staff using private email accounts to escape public scrutiny on official business. That case is pending.
Jindal's is far from the only governor's office using such tactics. While she was governor of Alaska — and while campaigning as the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee — Sarah Palin used outside email accounts (most famously a Yahoo! account) to conduct state business. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled this fall that all of Palin's and others' correspondence related to public business must be preserved and made available to the public under the Alaska Public Records Act. "That duty cannot be extinguished by a public official's unreviewable decision simply not to preserve them," the court wrote in a unanimous decision. We hope Louisiana's courts would adopt a similar position.
In 2011, an investigation revealed that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who campaigned on a transparency pledge similar to Jindal's, was saving only those emails between her office and the public — while deleting interoffice emails. Haley's office told the newspaper The State that it was a question of storage space, which is laughable in an age when gigabytes of computer memory can be bought for a few dollars. And if that lame excuse sounds familiar, it's the same one former Mayor Ray Nagin used for deleting many of his emails from city servers. Nagin is now a target of federal investigators.
According to Deslatte's AP story, Jindal staffers said they might use a private email account if they're working remotely or are having trouble accessing the state's mail server. That's a specious defense (we access our Gambit email accounts from home or on the road all the time), but even if it were true, the Alaska Supreme Court's ruling seems applicable here: Public officials' correspondence about public matters should be considered public record and taxpayers' property — and it should be readily available to anyone who files a public records request. After all, it's not just the state's server or state-issued smart phones or computers that make public officials' correspondence "public" in nature, it's the content of that correspondence — and the fact that official business is being conducted and official decisions are being made — that makes it the public's business.
Team Jindal's faux transparency, like Gov. Haley's, reminds us of Nagin's shabby record on public records. When WWL-TV sued the mayor after his administration refused to honor a valid public records request, Civil District Court Judge Rose Ledet noted wryly before ruling against Nagin, "I heard the mayor say on TV that he had the most transparent administration in the history of New Orleans." Jindal continues to make a similar claim about his administration. That boast rings just as hollow today on the state level as it did when Nagin made it on the city level.
The next time Bobby Jindal goes on the road and touts his administration's transparency, we hope his listeners — and the national media — will spot the transparent falseness of his claim.