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Spot checks highlight poor access to gubernatorial e-mail

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Think checking a governor's e-mail would show how key decisions are made? Not so, according to spot checks of five states where The Associated Press sought gubernatorial e-mail.

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The AP filed public records requests for a single day's worth of e-mails from governors in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and California, and got little meaningful information in return.

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell responded that they don't use e-mail. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's office flatly rejected the AP's request, citing a state Supreme Court decision that exempted the office's records from public disclosure.

Florida and Pennsylvania provided The AP with copies of constituent and junk e-mails sent to the governor's office. Corzine's office said no records existed for Feb. 6, the date for which AP requested e-mails.

In 2007, Corzine vowed to stop using e-mail because of a pending lawsuit over public access to e-mails he exchanged with a former girlfriend. The Democratic governor contends his e-mails are private and protected under executive privilege.

"We'll go back to the 1920s and have direct conversations with people," Corzine said.

Schwarzenegger's office released 80 pages of news releases, stories by the AP and other media, a political newsletter, transcripts of television newscasts and a transcript of the governor's news conference announcing funding for river levees.

All but one of the documents were sent by the governor's press office to his chief of staff, Susan Kennedy. The exception was a one-sentence e-mail from a special adviser to the governor asking Kennedy and other top officials to attend a meeting with "environmental stakeholders."

Under California law, correspondence to and from the governor's office is exempt from disclosure. Schwarzenegger's deputy legal affairs secretary, Daniel Maguire, said that exemption pertains to "internal, deliberative e-mails," e-mails with anyone outside the governor's office and personal e-mails.

Schwarzenegger doesn't maintain a government e-mail account, Maguire wrote.

As for Kennedy, the chief of staff, Maguire said, "Many of these e-mails are covered by exemptions to the Public Records Act, and we are not producing these exempt records to you."

California and Massachusetts are among several states which -- according to an Associated Press survey -- exempt the governor's e-mail from freedom of information requests. Others include Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Rhode Island and South Dakota.

In Minnesota, the AP has periodically reviewed e-mails to, from and among Gov. Tim Pawlenty's top aides. The e-mails have shed light on his role in fundraising for the Republican National Convention and his administration's response to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

The AP was charged to make copies of the correspondence, and none of the outgoing traffic could be traced directly to the Pawlenty himself.

The story was also different in Florida, where Crist's staff responded immediately to the AP's request.

The AP requested the e-mails at 6:36 p.m. on a Monday. Shortly after Crist's office opened the next morning, a staff member apologized that she didn't acknowledge the request sooner. The request was ready for pickup shortly after noon the next day.

Crist's office turned over hundreds of e-mails dating back more than a year. Most were constituent e-mails and routine responses from Crist's staff.

For instance, Leonardo Rivera of New Mexico sent an e-mail to Crist on Jan. 27 wondering why he was supporting Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential bid. Another resident sent an e-mail to the governor promoting a property tax reform idea.

Still, Crist doesn't like to use e-mail.

"I can't tell you the last time I got an e-mail from him," said George LeMieux, who until recently served as Crist's chief of staff and who ran his 2006 campaign. "I get a phone call. He just likes to talk to people, or hear their voice or capture things you can't capture in a sterile e-mail."

But he said Crist has been the most transparent governor in Florida history. Indeed, Crist's first official act as governor was to create the Office of Open Government, which strives to ensure that state agencies comply quickly and fully to records requests.

The difference between Crist and his predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush, is notable.

Bush's office often took months to fill requests, including one asking for e-mails related to the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. That 2005 request cost more than $500 for a box of e-mails printed on paper. In contrast, Crist's office copies e-mails onto CDs and usually hands them out at no cost.

Florida put into law in 1995 that e-mails are public records. Courts had already ruled as much, but then-state Rep. Ron Klein passed a bill spelling out that communication to and from public officials and government employees are public records regardless of format.

"We had some people in government saying this isn't tangible," said Klein, now a Democratic congressman. "There were still people who said, 'Hey, this is a way I can get around public records laws.'"

Indeed, e-mail responses from Crist's office note, "Under Florida law, e-mail addresses are public records. If you do not want your e-mail address released in response to a public record request, do not send electronic mail to this entity. Instead, contact this office by phone or in writing."

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Pioneer staff reports
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