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Utah governor sued for deleting e-mail

March 20, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Four news organizations have sued Gov. Mike Leavitt, contending he is illegally destroying his e-mail.

Leavitt's deletion of electronic documents amounts to destroying public records, the lawsuit filed Tuesday contends.

The governor is "depriving the public of its constitutional right of access to information concerning the conduct of the public's business," The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly and television stations KUTV and KTVX said.

Leavitt spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour said the governor had not had time to review the lawsuit, but, "We believe we are abiding by the law. We basically view e-mail much like a conversation."

In 1998, a federal judge ruled that the White House cannot erase computer files, including e-mail, without first announcing its intentions and giving researchers at the National Archives time to protest.

The Utah dispute started last year when The Tribune asked for paper and digital correspondence from the governor's office concerning congressional redistricting.

Leavitt's lawyer, Gary Doxey, turned down the request and said he advised the governor to routinely destroy e-mails, many of which Doxey said were personal.

The governor told The Tribune in November that he deleted all his e-mail after three days.

"It's something I decided several years ago after conferring with my counsel," Leavitt said. "In this job, I just deal with too many sensitive issues."

City Weekly Managing Editor Christopher Smart said the demand that Leavitt save official records is "common sense and reasonable. ... It's clear we don't seek to know about his personal communications."

According to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va., there are no states that expressly say e-mail is not public record. The states either don't specifically address the issue, or it falls under the same rules that apply to any government documents, the group said.

Utah's law states: "correspondence ... in which the governmental entity determines or states an opinion upon the rights of the state, a political subdivision, the public, or any person" is normally public regardless of the record's physical form.

Rebecca Daugherty of The Reporters Committee said whether the e-mail should be preserved depends on its content.

"If these are records that have to do with conduct of government, they ought to be preserved the same way paper records are preserved," Daugherty said. She said it wouldn't apply to a governor's e-mail asking a staffer to bring him or her a cup of coffee.

Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press.


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