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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Gov't Officials' "Private" Work-Related Emails Are Public Records

There's an urban myth out there that government officials can use private email accounts to conduct government business and--poof!--they're not public records because they're not on government email accounts. Wrong.

The Ohio Sunshine Committee recently concluded that these emails are public records. The Washington Attorney General's Model Rules on Public Records come to the same conclusion:

"Sometimes agency employees work on agency business from home computers. These home computer records (including e-mail) were 'used' by the agency and relate to the 'conduct of government' so they are 'public records.' RCW 42.17.020(41). However, the act does not authorize unbridled searches of agency property. If agency property is not subject to unbridled searches, then neither is the home computer of an agency employee. Yet, because the home computer documents relating to agency business are 'public records,' they are subject to disclosure (unless exempt). Agencies should instruct employees that all public records, regardless of where they were created, should eventually be stored on agency computers. Agencies should ask employees to keep agency-related documents on home computers in separate folders and to routinely blind carbon copy ('bcc') work e-mails back to the employee's agency e-mail account. If the agency receives a request for records that are solely on employees' home computers, the agency should direct the employee to forward any responsive documents back to the agency, and the agency should process the request as it would if the records were on the agency's computers."

WAC 44-14-03001(3) (footnote omitted).

If you have requested private-account emails relating to government business and been told they're not "public records," you should consider contacting us.