Ricketts’ office: Staff shouldn’t use personal email for work

The message to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ staff is clear, his office says: Don’t use personal email for state business.

“Obviously, this office is going to follow the law,” said Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Nebraska’s Republican governor, in response Tuesday to questions from the Democratic Party about the governor’s latest appointee.

While government workers are not prohibited from conducting government business using their personal email accounts, the Nebraska attorney general’s office has found that those communications are generally public record under state law. That opinion came in 2012, under then-Attorney General Jon Bruning.

Ricketts’ office says it’s steering clear of the issue altogether.

“I think just common sense says it’s better for all this communication to be coming through an official conduit, and it’s the way things have been done before,” Gage said.

“One of the goals of the office is to be transparent, and there’s no reason to leave doubt in people’s minds that that’s not happening.”

The governor’s office explained the policy Tuesday in response to concerns from the Nebraska Democratic Party about Ricketts’ latest appointee, Calder Lynch, who was tapped to be the state’s next Medicaid director.

Lynch, now chief of staff for Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, was quoted by The Associated Press in 2012 as instructing a department spokesman to contact him on his personal email instead of his work address.

“Please be careful to send stuff … like what you just sent … only to my gmail. May have accidentally hit my state addy (address), but they are very particular,” Lynch wrote in an email to the spokesman, according to the AP.

The Louisiana department refused to share the emails, but they were provided to the AP by an administration official who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to share them. Those emails centered around a media strategy for imposing $523 million in health care cuts under Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who wasn’t included in the emails.

“They hired somebody who ran afoul of using private emails to evade accountability,” Nebraska Democratic Party Chairman Vince Powers said of the Ricketts administration. “This is called public service, not secret service.”

In their orientation, Nebraska agency directors are made aware of the state’s public records laws, Gage said: “They’re expected to follow those.”

Gage said things will be no different for Lynch, who is scheduled to begin work March 9.

In addition to concerns over Lynch’s past, Powers has requested email exchanges and other records related to another Ricketts hire, Jessica Moenning, whom the governor plans to pay out of his own pocket, not using state dollars.

The governor’s office responded to the records request last week but “skipped over a lot of things,” Powers said.

Since then, he has asked Ricketts’ staff to provide additional records — such as a list of Moenning’s clients and emails between her and the governor — or explain why they won’t. Moenning is a former lobbyist but isn’t registered this year with the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

“This request that Vince made contains exactly what he asked for,” Gage said. “Jessica’s email account, since she’s not a state employee, isn’t subject to public records requests, but our email accounts are because that is state business.”

Gage said the governor’s office will seek formal guidance on Moenning’s position from the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

Ricketts has described Moenning as a senior adviser who helped organize informal advisory groups on various subjects.

“I’m still trying to figure out what her role is,” said Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha, a Democrat. “I have a concern where her sole job is … to advise the governor. I think we have a right to know what that communication is.

“What we need are clear lines, so we know.”

The 2012 attorney general’s opinion provides some guidance, though such opinions do not carry the same weight as a court decision.

That opinion, which came in response to a records request by the Beatrice Daily Sun, found that members of the Gage County Board of Supervisors were obligated to turn over emails on personal accounts if they addressed county business.

What remains untested by the courts and hasn’t been addressed by the office of new Attorney General Doug Peterson is where Moenning fits in.

Representatives of several national government groups have said they’ve never heard of a role like hers.

There are reasons for a governor’s office to have meetings that are not public, said Jack Gould, a lobbyist for Common Cause Nebraska, which promotes government transparency.

“On the whole,” Gould said, “public information needs to be available to the public.”

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