Government & Politics

Attorney who sued Greitens wants ban on secret messaging apps in governor’s office

News that former Gov. Eric Greitens’ staff used a second self-destructing text message app—and that a current staffer for Missouri’s new governor had the app downloaded until this week—has inspired an attorney who is suing the governor’s office to call for a court order permanently banning the use of such apps.

Greitens was sued in late 2017 over his use of an app called Confide, which automatically deletes a text message once it is read. The lawsuit against the governor’s office, which argues the app was used to subvert the state’s open records laws, is ongoing.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that during his tumultuous 17 months in office, Greitens and his staff also used another app called Silent Phone.

The app allows users to make phone calls and send encrypted text messages. It also enables users to set the time of deletion anywhere from one minute to 90 days. The default setting deletes texts in 3 days.

Documents obtained by The Star and Al Jazeera’s investigative unit through an October open records request show that Drew Erdmann, Missouri’s chief operating officer, had the app reinstalled on his government phone in July, a month after Greitens resigned and new-Gov. Mike Parson took over.Erdmann, appointed COO by Greitens, used the app for phone calls and text messaging while traveling overseas as part of his official duties.

“The last time I recall using the app was in November 2017 while traveling for official business to the Middle East,” he said.

Some of Greitens’ senior staff were instructed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol to use the app on government phones in situations “when safety and security necessitated,” Erdmann said. That included overseas travel and “domestic security events,” he said, like the 2017 unrest in St. Louis following the acquittal of a white police officer accused of murdering an African American suspect.

The governor’s office says the only other staffer who had the app downloaded on a government-issued phone since Parson took office was Maddie McMillian, originally a special assistant to First Lady Sheena Greitens and now a special assistant to Erdmann.

McMillian had the app until October, when her government phone was broken. When it was replaced, Silent Phone was not reinstalled.

Mark Pedroli, one of a pair of St. Louis attorneys who sued Greitens over his Confide use, expressed concern that the governor’s office allowed an app that deletes records to be installed on a government-issued phone.

“Silent Phone is not compliant with the Sunshine Law and public retention laws,” Pedroli said.

The judge in the lawsuit issued an order in May prohibiting use of Confide or any similar application for public business in the governor’s office while the suit was ongoing, Pedroli said. He believes Erdmann’s installation of Silent Phone in July violated that court order, and he plans ask the judge to issue a permanent injunction.

While the the existence of Silent Phone in the governor’s office became public this week, former Attorney General Josh Hawley first discovered its use by Greitens and his aides in February 2018.

Hawley, who stepped down as attorney general when he was sworn in as U.S. Senator Jan. 3, conducted an investigation in early 2018 into whether Greitens’ use of Confide violated Missouri law, ultimately clearing Greitens and his staff of any wrongdoing.

As part of that inquiry, Hawley’s staff discovered some in the governor’s office were using Silent Phone. The attorney general’s office said in its final report on Confide that certain staff used another app “that provides end-to-end encryption for secure phone calls and text messaging.”

The attorney general’s office did not reveal the name of the app, agreeing with the governor’s office that all records pertaining to Silent Phone were closed. Nor did the attorney general’s report note that the app in question also deletes text messages.

The Star filed an open records request in May 2018 for messages sent or received using the app going back to the previous September. The request was never fulfilled before Greitens resigned on June 1.

Following more recent open records requests from the media, the governor’s office says it began looking into how Silent Phone was used and who had it downloaded on their government phone.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol notified the governor’s office that it had allowed all of its licenses for use of Silent Phone to expire by the end of 2018, prompting state information technology staff to remove Silent Phone from Erdmann’s taxpayer-funded phone on Monday.

Before the licenses expired, the highway patrol had four separate contracts for Silent Phone—one for the division of drug and crime control and three for criminal justice information services. Capt. John Hotz, spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the app “provided a hardened communication platform that prevented the information from being intercepted or hacked.”

Pedroli said he’s troubled that Silent Phone wasn’t uninstalled from Erdmann’s phone until after the media began to take notice.

“This policy of ‘we’ll remove it when we’re caught’ is precisely the reason I’m seeking a permanent injunction against the use of burner apps in government,” he said.

Following Pedroli’s lawsuit, Greitens’ office established a policy that “no staff member may use any self-destructing messaging application to conduct public business, whether it be on a state-issued or personal device.”

In July 2018, Parson’s office replaced that policy with one prohibiting employees from using apps on their state-issued phones that “immediately and automatically delete messages upon the recipient’s review of the message.”