Deleting all government emails violates Pennsylvania policy

Update: Ron Tomalis has resigned.

In July, acting state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq cited a department practice of purging emails each evening as the reason her department released only five emails for Ron Tomalis, the governor’s special adviser on higher education, during his first year in the position.

“There’s no email trail for a lot of folks. I couldn’t possibly store all of my email; we delete and cleanse each evening, so that’s why there’s no emails,” Ms. Dumaresq told Harrisburg television station WHTM.

Turns out the practice of purging all emails each night violates the department’s policy on record retention, a policy based on state record retention laws.

Ms. Dumaresq made her comments on July 31. But it took two informal requests and a Right-to-Know request to the Department of Education for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to get a copy of the department’s policy on record retention.

Upon review, it appears the policy is identical to one posted on the website of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which oversees public record retention and disposal schedules in the state.

The policy describes various types of documents and the criteria for determining if they are considered public records. It also includes a 59-page retention schedule for various types of records ranging from one to several years and in some cases, significantly longer.

The policy states that “transitory records” — those of little value, or those whose value has expired — can be purged. Transitory records can include such items as materials not related to state business, announcements of community events and personal email, reference materials from outside organizations or preliminary drafts of letters, reports or memoranda.

And the policy does recommend daily review of emails to dispose of “non-records” and “transitory records.”

But documents are considered a public record if they are used to conduct current operations, document a transaction or activity of an agency, or document the policies, procedures and administration of an agency, according to sections of the policy.

Public records can include papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, film or sound recordings, information stored or maintained electronically and data- or image-processed documents.

According to the policy, electronic records are to be managed similarly to paper records in that those are required to be kept in electronic file folders or locations “from which they can be readily identified and retrieved.”

Ms. Dumaresq could not be reached for comment. Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education, said that in her television interview Ms. Dumaresq was referring to “transitory emails,” even though she did not specify that.

However, the five emails released from Mr. Tomalis records, which came in response to a Right-To-Know request from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had dates from February, May and June and all appeared to be “transitory” in nature.

Two involved registering for a conference. Two others dealt with an invitation for a department representative to serve on a governing board of an education and business venture in India and a fifth email was one in which Mr. Tomalis asked for clarification about the number of higher education institutions in the state.

Ms. Dumaresq’s comments that email purging was the reason for so few emails provided for Mr. Tomalis contradicted an explanation she provided in a recorded interview July 24 with two Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters. Then she said Mr. Tomalis had only five emails because he preferred “face-to-face” interactions.

Mr. Eller declined to comment on that contradiction.

Mr. Tomalis’ emails were released as part of a series of Right-To-Know requests filed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which had asked for Mr. Tomalis’ emails, work schedule, phone logs, work product and expense reimbursement for his first year as the governor’s special adviser on higher education. Mr. Tomalis had previously been state education secretary and was permitted to keep his $139,542 salary when he moved to the adviser role.

In addition to the five emails, the records request produced phone logs averaging a little more than a call per day and no expenses to indicate that he traveled the state to institutions of higher education in his adviser’s role that began June 1, 2013.

The lack of evidence showing work product or attempts at work have led Democratic leaders to ask Gov. Tom Corbett to seek Mr. Tomalis’ resignation and a Republican leader to call for an investigation into the former education secretary.

Mr. Tomalis has not granted interviews on the topic. But in defending him, Ms. Dumaresq said Mr. Tomalis has worked 40 hours per week since she became acting secretary a year ago and has helped with a number of K-12 educational programs. Mr. Eller said Mr. Tomalis is at work this week on a statewide STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — competition.

Mary Niederberger; or 412-263-1590.

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