Records of S.C. officials and agencies are available to the public, right?
State and local governments have applied patchwork standards to preserving records, e-mails and other documents. In some cases, those governments have ignored guidelines set out by state archivists.
In other cases, public officials have defied the law.
The issue came to light during this summer's scrutiny of Gov. Mark Sanford's travel and campaign records. Questions about Sanford's activities led to scrutiny of past administrations and lawmakers.
Reporters and attorneys digging through state archives found that many records no longer existed. The S.C. Department of Archives and History recommends which records should be preserved. But director Eric Emerson said his agency does not have the staff to make sure state agencies are complying with the rules.
Among the public records that public officials said were no longer available:
- E-mails - Gov. Sanford's office provided thousands of pages of e-mails to reporters after his June trip to Argentina. But Sanford's office refused to comply with a Freedom of Information request, saying staff members no longer worked for his office and their e-mails were not preserved. In one case, the staffer still was working for Sanford when the request was submitted.
- Aircraft data - The S.C. Division of Aeronautics said it destroys records detailing use of state-owned aircraft after three years. As a result, it was difficult to compare past administrations' use of the aircraft after Sanford's use was questioned.
- Financial data - Records detailing how past administrations used a special Commerce Department account - funded by contributions from private companies - were unavailable. Such funds have drawn criticism from state auditors in the past.
Archives Department head Emerson said state agencies largely are responsible for what is and is not preserved.
"We don't audit records to see if state agencies are following the standards," Emerson said. "There's no real auditing mechanism."
Instead, Emerson said, his agency recommends to state and local agencies which documents should be preserved and how best to comply with state open records laws.
For instance, Archives Department guidelines recommend either an electronic system to preserve e-mails or manually printing out e-mails for archiving. Custodians of public records, the guidelines say, must make records available to the public that are subject to public review.
But government officials often say e-mails are no longer available. And sometimes they use private e-mail accounts to skirt public disclosure.
'INFURIATING ... SYSTEMIC FAILURE'
In 2005, Abbeville resident Paul Trask's son, Paul III, died in a car accident near Fripp Island in Beaufort County. Trask had many questions about the accident. But when he requested investigators' e-mails, he was told they no longer existed.
Trask since has filed a lawsuit against the Beaufort County Sheriff's Department and the S.C. Department of Public Safety seeking e-mails and other documents. According to court documents in the case, investigators said they deleted e-mails. In addition, investigators also used personal e-mail accounts to discuss the case and have yet to turn over those documents.
"They just destroy it," Trask said of e-mails. "These are important public records. They have to be preserved."
In the case of Sanford's office, his attorneys argued they did not have to provide e-mail for staff members who no longer worked for the two-term Republican governor. That included former spokesman Joel Sawyer, who had announced his resignation but had yet to leave his position at the time of the request.
"We are also not able to disclose any e-mails ... because we have no e-mail records from these individuals who no longer work in our office," Sanford's attorney wrote in a response to a public records request from The State newspaper.
Lawmakers investigating the governor this summer compared missing records to the destruction of evidence. But none of the legislation so far filed in response to the Sanford scandal addresses the preservation of e-mail and other documents. (Lawmakers have filed bills to deal with other aspects stemming from the Sanford investigation, including requiring security protection for the governor and having the governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket.)
The S.C. Policy Council, a conservative government watchdog group, began an audit of the e-mail of selected public officials last summer but has yet to release its results.
The Archive Department's Emerson notes another problem with record-keeping in the age of technology: It is up to state agencies to update the records and foot the bill for technology.
"It's like it's destroyed if you can't access it," Emerson said.
Trask said the issue needs more public awareness.
"It is infuriating that ... there is such a systemic failure," Trask said. "There's no budget; that's the problem.
"The public doesn't care about this sort of thing unless they need those records."
Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.