Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office has cleared Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff of wrongdoing in connection with the use of a text-erasing phone application.
The finding should worry Missourians who care about open government. And the legislature should now step forward to prohibit the use of secret message applications by all state employees.
The app — called Confide — allowed Greitens and his staff to exchange text messages that were erased immediately after they were read. That meant texts involving significant government business might have automatically disappeared, in violation of the state’s record retention policies.
Hawley’s office conceded that possibility in its report. “The app prevents public employees from exercising reasoned judgment as to whether a communication must be retained,” it said.
But the office gave the governor and his aides a clean bill of health anyway because it couldn’t find written proof that important government business had been conducted through Confide.
The report relied instead on the testimony of Greitens’ aides, who insisted any erased Confide messages involving public business were “transitory” and didn’t need to be saved.
There’s no way of knowing whether they’re telling the truth. “The nature of Confide necessarily means that no documentary evidence exists to corroborate (or contradict) this testimony,” the report said.
Pretty sweet. Missouri can’t tell if text messages were illegally erased because they were, uh, erased.
Missourians who think government should be transparent must now step forward.
State Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis Democrat, has introduced legislation that would prohibit lawmakers and state employees from downloading and using Confide or any similar self-erasing text message application.
“The use of technology to automatically destroy public records has no place in Missouri government,” she said in January.
To date, the proposal hasn’t had a hearing. That must change.
The whole point of having an open records law is to allow citizens to see what public workers are doing. There is no reason covered state employees should have the ability to delete any text communication if public business is being conducted.
That extends to privately-owned phones, too. The attorney general’s report is clear: A text message dealing with significant public business must be saved even if “the communication was transmitted or received via a personal account or device.”
State workers might claim prohibiting Confide on private phones invades their privacy. But Missourians have an absolute right to know if public workers are conducting public business secretly, and banning Confide is a reasonable step to accomplish that goal.
In a statement Thursday, Greitens spokesman Parker Briden said the governor’s office “look(s) forward to working with the legislature to modernize the state records retention and Sunshine law to bring further clarity to these issues.”
We know he’s pretty busy, but we’ll take Greitens at his word. He should lead the effort to ban Confide on any phone, public or private, used by a state worker. Then he should delete the app from his own phone if it’s still there.