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Bentley only uses a private email account; here’s why that’s a big deal, and why it’s not

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, right, and Attorney General Luther Strange listen to Alabama Ethics Commission Director Judge John Carroll during an ethics training session at the Capitol Auditorium in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, right, and Attorney General Luther Strange listen to Alabama Ethics Commission Director Judge John Carroll during an ethics training session at the Capitol Auditorium in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

Alabama sports website and liberal political blog AL.com on Tuesday declared, “Gov. Robert Bentley has a Hillary Clinton problem.”

The provocative headline fueled a round of talk radio discussion surrounding revelations that Gov. Bentley has never maintained a state government email account, opting instead to correspond using a personal email account.

The article was penned by opinion columnist John Archibald. Mr. Archibald mentioned in the article that he made “an official records request for the governor’s emails,” but only received a reply from the governor’s IT administrator saying, “Governor Bentley does not have, nor has he ever had an email account with the State of Alabama.”

What Archibald did not mention in his column, however, is that he was also sent the records he requested: Text message and email correspondence for the year 2015 between Governor Bentley and his senior political advisor Rebekah Mason. This is a notable omission, one, because it exposes the author’s unstated motivation for making the initial open records request; and two, because it reveals his willingness to leave out pertinent details to advance a narrative.

On the first point, AL.com recently published a series of thinly sourced articles citing a Facebook post speculating that Governor Bentley had carried on an illicit affair with Mrs. Mason. The organization received intense criticism among journalists who questioned the ethics of using what the Montgomery Advertiser described as “some people are questioning” sourcing when they really want to report something but are missing verifiable proof. The blowback has presumably compelled Mr. Archibald and other AL.com writers to continue digging for vindication.

On the second point, once Mr. Archibald did not get what he was hoping for out of the open records request, he ignored his own findings while continuing to advance the narrative that the Bentley Administration is withholding information.

Yellowhammer News made the same request for records as Mr. Archibald and found that Gov. Bentley and Mrs. Mason have only corresponded via text and email this year on a handful of occasions.

The emails from Mrs. Mason to Gov. Bentley each included a link to a story with no additional comments.

The stories were as follows:
Bentley won’t retreat on taxes as budget stalemate continues | Dothan Eagle
Talladega Mayor Larry Barton describes beating; questions raised about sex tape | Al.com
Governor John Kasich speaks at the Iowa State Fair | C-Span

The text message correspondence between Gov. Bentley and Mrs. Mason was not much different.

Mrs. Mason sent the governor a link to one WAAYTV article titled “Alabama Governor Robert Bentley sits down for interview.”

The most interesting insight was from the morning of July 19th of this year when Gov. Bentley sent the following text to Mrs. Mason:

Need a briefing by perry smith 9am on Tuesday. About arming gaurd. I want a plant to arm!! Need you spencer perry and his people. Jennifer by phone for press. Or yas Rebekah for political. Others ? But probably enough.

The Governor followed up moments later with another text that said, “Sent to Seth,” presumably explaining that he had sent the previous text message to his chief of staff, Seth Hammett.

That same afternoon the story broke on Yellowhammer that Bentley had decided to arm the Alabama National Guard in the wake of shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee in which five service members were killed by a radical Islamist at two separate military facilities.

This is not to say that Gov. Bentley and Mrs. Mason do not interact frequently — even constantly, on some days — only that their interaction is done in person or over the phone, rather than by text and email.

With all of that having been said, let’s dig into an important question that is worth considering, in spite of Mr. Archibald’s dishonest tactics: Is it a big deal that Governor Bentley does not maintain a state government email address, opting instead to correspond using a personal email account?

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL

Transparency is important.

Trust in government is near an all-time low. Many Alabamians already question Gov. Bentley’s honesty after he drastically changed positions on tax increases after winning re-election. In that context, it is a particularly bad idea to fuel the perception of opaqueness by not maintaining a government email address.

Gov. Bentley is not the first governor to exclusively use a private email account. In fact, two former staffers to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley told Yellowhammer Tuesday that they do not recall Riley utilizing a state email account, either.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush earlier this year released hundreds of thousands of emails from his time as the Sunshine State’s chief executive. Many of them were sent via a personal email account housed on a private server. This resulted in Bush being praised by some transparency advocates, and criticized by others who insisted that all correspondence should have been subject to archival by the government’s process, rather than by the elected official’s.

All politicians know the importance of perception. Why create the perception — if not the reality — of surreptitiousness for no good reason? Just use the government’s email system.

The administration has a legal obligation to archive its official correspondence.

In addition to the public relations issues, Gov. Bentley’s decision to forego a state government email account could pose a challenge for the administration’s legal obligation to archive its official correspondence.

The administration downplays those concerns, saying that any of the Governor’s official correspondence with state government officials has been captured by the other individual’s state government email, in spite of the Governor not using one himself.

“If email from a state account on state business is sent to the Governor’s personal account, that email communication is to be preserved by the employee sending the email communication in accordance with the Governor’s Office Records Retention Policy,” said Bentley’s communications director Jennifer Ardis.

When asked if the administration could say with complete confidence that there had never been an instance in which the Governor used his personal email account for official business and it was not captured and archived, Ms. Ardis said they could.

“The Governor’s Office takes its archival responsibility seriously—both from a legacy perspective and a legal perspective,” she said. “As files are closed and matters concluded, these are archived on a rolling basis in accordance with the Governor’s Office Records Retention and Archiving Policy.”

WHY IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL

There is not much to archive.

The governor is just plain old school when it comes to communication, conducting most of his business face-to-face or over the phone.

Numerous individuals who regularly interact with the Governor — some inside the Administration, some not — all told Yellowhammer the overwhelming majority of their interaction with Gov. Bentley is done in one of those two ways. Some of them said they had never received a single email during their years working with the Governor.

This has been my personal experience as well. The Governor has typically responded to my emails with a phone call or by having one of his staffers reply to set up a meeting or address my request or concern.

Gov. Bentley is not alone in his sparse use of email.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) raised eyebrows earlier this year for admitting he has never sent an email. Yellowhammer also asked Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) about his email habits.

“I have an iPhone and it belongs to the Senate and it’s all I use,” he said. “I have [sent emails]. Not a lot. The best thing is person-to-person like I’m talking to you. To my staff, talk to them on the phone but also notes. Hand notes. I write a lot. I’ve been here a while; I’m a little older than y’all.”

While it is unimaginable for those of us whose work and personal lives revolve around Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail that someone could go their entire day—much less their entire life—without sending a single email, electronic communication is simply not as important to every day life for previous generations.

This does not excuse Gov. Bentley’s decision to forego a state government email account in favor of a personal one, but the point is, it seems a little over-the-top to make a huge deal out of emails when the guy barely sends any of them.

He’s not dealing with matters of national security.

“Gov. Robert Bentley has a Hillary Clinton problem,” the clickbait headline of AL.com’s article on Gov. Bentley’s email practices, is absurd on its face.

The differences between these two individuals and their email issues are so obvious that I hesitate to insult your intelligence by explaining them, but just consider this.

Hillary Clinton’s private email server held classified information like spy satellite images tracking the movement of North Korea’s nuclear assets. That type of intel is typically handled within a special compartment called Talent-Keyhole. In layman’s terms, this is some of the most sensitive information in all of the intelligence community, sometimes even referred to as “above Top Secret.” This is the kind of sensitive intelligence that Russia, China and North Korea deploy armies of hackers to steal.

To compare the sensitive nature of the emails of a governor who’s worrying about state parks and driver’s license offices, to those of the U.S. Secretary of State, who is tackling geopolitical crises and diplomatic negotiations, is beyond ridiculous.

However, there are times when governors do have to deal with issues related to homeland security. For instance, portions of certain natural disaster response or preparedness plans could be classified because they contain information related to the power grid or other critical infrastructure. Yellowhammer asked the Governor’s office if he had ever discussed such issues via email.

“Classified and privileged information is shared and discussed with the Governor face-to-face only,” the Governor’s spokesperson said in response.