RALEIGH, N.C. — Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and his Democratic opponent in the undecided North Carolina governor’s race have together sent or received hundreds of messages from private email accounts —a sidestep around official communication channels that McCrory’s team blasted as “questionable” in a comparison to Hillary Clinton.
McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper — locked in a hotly contested race, with Cooper leading by just over 10,000 votes of more than 4.7 million cast and a state recount possible — each conducted state business via their private emails, The Associated Press learned from documents provided under North Carolina’s public records law.
Staffers for both candidates have lagged in producing the emails as required by state law and won’t say when they will fully comply with AP requests made months ago. The AP sought from both men personal emails they sent or received across state servers between Election Day four years ago and the end of last year.
That delay comes despite an updated email management system installed in 2014 that allows the retrieval of almost any email sent through state government servers within minutes, said Tracy Doaks, the state’s deputy chief information officer.
In response to the AP requests, aides for McCrory and Cooper said they culled the private messages for information that the law allows to be withheld or requires kept secret. It’s impossible to know how much communication they have withheld.
“Our office does not release records without a thorough review for personnel information, attorney-client privileged information, criminal record information, and/or personal financial information,” Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley wrote in an email.
McCrory’s staff in September quit providing the private email records sought by the AP and wouldn’t respond when asked about their progress. Talley said in October that she couldn’t estimate how many more of Cooper’s personal emails involving state business were yet to be produced.
Cooper had sent only a handful of emails using his official state account in the 16 years he has been the state’s top prosecutor. Talley said Cooper prefers communicating in person or by phone but wouldn’t respond when asked whether the Democrat minimized his use of official email in preference to his private account.
A McCrory campaign ad released a week before Election Day said Cooper’s scant use of email through his official account was “questionable.”
“Emails could well be the downfall of . Roy Cooper. Surprised? We know of Hillary’s email problems, but it was Roy Cooper who vouched for Hillary’s ‘honesty,’” the ad said.
Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, was attacked by Republicans throughout the campaign for maintaining a private email server during her time as secretary of state and for refusing to release some personal emails. The State Department’s inspector general found that Clinton broke department rules when she used private email for government business, concluding that she created a security risk and violated transparency and disclosure policies. Clinton said she did nothing wrong.
Public officials who communicate through private emails may be trying to circumvent public records laws or just seeking greater convenience, said Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University. Either way, as Clinton’s email controversy showed, it fosters mistrust if private email leaves the account-holder in control of what is publicly released, Jones said.
“I think to a lot of citizens, that’s why it matters,” Jones said. “They’re bothered by an air of secrecy.”
The practice of skirting official email accounts and communicating privately has been employed by politicians of both major parties, including former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel.
Neither McCrory nor Cooper responded when The AP emailed their personal accounts asking why they communicated outside official channels or what advantage they gained from the practice.
McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis said the governor has received messages from constituents to his private account for many years, and that email involving public business is “treated in accordance with public records law.”
For most of his term as governor, McCrory has conducted state business via three private email accounts maintained in addition to two government accounts, the AP learned through its records request. Many other high-ranking members of his administration also commonly conduct state business on private accounts.
McCrory has used one of the private accounts for at least a decade, including when he was Charlotte’s mayor.
Some back-channel communications came from political donors and bigwigs seeking to influence public policy. Requests for favors include one from a top lobbyist at the Charlotte law firm that employed McCrory without clear duties before he was elected governor in 2012. A year after insurance giant MetLife Inc. announced that it would move 2,600 jobs to North Carolina, the CEO wanted McCrory to meet with executives and the company’s board of directors, the lobbyist wrote.
A sampling of Cooper’s personal email traffic, nearly always funneled through a few top aides, included updates on pending legal settlements and a request from a state attorney who Cooper’s top assistant said “needs to know if you can sign some wiretap papers for him.”
The email issue has a special significance in North Carolina because former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, used private email to shield his internal office discussions from transparency requirements of public records law. His staffers said they were told to routinely delete sensitive email. Those details were revealed after Easley was sued in 2008 by The AP and other media organizations.
Since then, McCrory and his predecessors have signed executive orders requiring their agencies to store government email for years as “the property of the people.”
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