The revelation in a court filing that Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi and a top aide regularly used personal e-mail accounts to conduct government business so as to be “non-FOIA-ble” — that is, not subject to the Freedom of Information Act — has touched a nerve in local media circles.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was questioned aggressively on the matter at his news conference this morning, and he said he does not support members of his administration using private e-mail accounts for government purposes. His attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, said in a statement Tuesday that the city “needs to make such a policy clear and in writing.”
Gray, speaking for himself, said he keeps a private e-mail account, “but it’s for my private business,” he said. “I don’t use it to conduct public business.”
There is at least one elected official who does use a personal account for official business and is quite open about it, highlighting the fact that there has indeed been little official guidance on the practice.
Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) regularly sends e-mails to colleagues, staff, reporters, listservs and city officials from his firstname.lastname@example.org account, which is not hosted on a D.C. government system. That is not to say he is the only member who does so, but he is most explicit about it.
”I’ve had this account virtually since my first day as a council member,” Graham said Wednesday. “Never in mind have I tried to shield anything. It is the standard account. I don’t know what the others [members] are up to or not up to.”
Graham said he also uses his government account, at email@example.com, which is monitored by a staff member as well. But most of the e-mails he personally writes, he said, come from the personal account, which he uses mainly from home in the mornings. “I don’t want to schlep into the office,” he said.
Graham noted that he’s never been told of a council policy against using a personal account — confirmed today by a council spokeswoman — but what is not clear is whether the personal account is subject to FOIA and whether an elected official or employee can be compelled to open their account for a search.
The spokeswoman, Karen Sibert, said the council’s chief lawyer has prepared an opinion on the matter, though details were not immediately available. Graham said he would abide by whatever guidelines were offered.
“My general attitude is, I really believe in the maximum amount of transparency,” he said, adding that he’d “rather not be harassed to death” by having to respond to records requests on his personal account.