Top Jindal aides use personal email to strategize
Jindal campaigned for his first term on a platform of providing more transparency in government.
However, the emails in question weren’t among more than 3,800 documents and emails provided to AP by the Department of Health and Hospitals in response to a request for information on discussions surrounding the health care cuts.
Louisiana’s public records law states that all documents used in ‘‘the conduct, transaction or performance’’ of public business are considered public except in cases where there is a specific exemption.
Administration officials didn’t respond directly to questions about whether they were using private email accounts to shield conversations about public business from disclosure.
‘‘Certainly we believe that conducting public business even when using personal means of communication is subject to public records law,’’ Nichols, the governor’s commissioner of administration, said in a statement.
Bates, the Jindal spokeswoman, agreed with Nichols’ assessment and said the governor’s office encourages all officials to conduct state business on state accounts.
Bates didn’t directly answer an emailed question about why she and Jindal communications director Kyle Plotkin sent multiple group emails in July to Greenstein, Nichols and DHH employees using their personal email accounts when talking about news organizations’ coverage of the Medicaid budget cuts.
DHH spokeswoman Kristen Sunde said the department agrees ‘‘any state issues discussed over electronic communication are subject to public records law, regardless of the type of account used.’’
It’s unclear how department attorneys and computer experts who do the leg work in responding to public records requests would know to check individual employees’ personal email accounts for documents complying with a request.
Also, experts say, there’s no certainty the individual won’t delete public records from a personal account rather than turn them over.
‘‘You’re the only one really who can cough it up,’’ said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which advocates for transparency in state government. ‘‘It does lend itself to a way of getting around the law, if it’s not properly handled.’’
Sunde didn’t answer a question about why the emails that involved non-state accounts weren’t included in the agency’s response to AP’s public records request.
She said DHH staff uses state email accounts for work-related matters, but may use a personal account if employees are working remotely, have limited access from a mobile device or are encountering difficulties with the state email server. Nichols offered a similar explanation.
After Louisiana’s federal Medicaid financing rate dropped, Jindal decided the largest share of the Medicaid reductions would fall on the LSU-run hospitals that care for poor and uninsured patients. The governor is pushing to shift more care to private hospitals.
In a July 27 email exchange, six administration officials discussed how to respond to LSU’s announcement of where it would make its budget cuts.
Nichols, then Jindal’s deputy chief of staff, talked of the need to include a reference to ‘‘long term strategic reform’’ in the official administration response. Plotkin, the governor’s top communications adviser, struck the word ‘‘challenging’’ from a description of the cuts. Greenstein agreed to use whatever statement was devised in coordination with the governor’s office to respond to the LSU cuts.
In a series of emails on July 13 and 14, Plotkin urged Greenstein and his staff to ‘‘pen an op-ed from Bruce for all papers on why LSU hospitals need to transform the way they do biz now with this loss of money.’’
Using his personal Gmail account, Plotkin sent the message to the personal email accounts of five DHH employees saying, ‘‘We need to get out front on this message.’’
In another set of conversations about a requested newspaper correction, Lynch, one of Greenstein’s top advisers, told a department spokesman not to use a state government email account.
‘‘Please be careful to send stuff from Kyle like what you just sent .... only to my gmail. May have accidentally hit my state addy (address), but they are very particular,’’ Lynch wrote.
Bunting, of the Missouri-based watchdog group, said government employees who use private email accounts to conduct public business should forward those conversations to public email addresses and direct others to send emails to their public accounts, to help ensure those communications are included in response to public records requests.Continued...