The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Md. Gov. Larry Hogan’s messages to state employees self-destruct in 24 hours

The app Wickr has provided the governor a forum to complain about media reports, direct pandemic response and coordinate with top staffers

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) holds a news conference in Annapolis on Dec. 1. Records obtained by The Washington Post show the governor has communicated to state employees inside a “covid-19" chatroom that destroys messages in 24 hours. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has long used electronic chatrooms that destroy messages in 24 hours to communicate with state employees, records show, allowing his inner circle to keep communications beyond the reach of the public, state archivists and history.

The app the governor and his staffers have been using, called Wickr, markets itself to government agencies and others seeking security from foreign and domestic cyberthreats. The platform in practice has provided Hogan — a moderate Republican with national ambitions — a forum to complain about media reports, direct pandemic response and coordinate with top staffers.

Many states, including Maryland, have yet to reckon with technology that transparency advocates say allows officials to violate at least the spirit of open-records laws. That’s in part because of the difficulty of proving that officials are using the apps and the greater difficulty of seeing what’s being communicated.

Hogan, who has projected himself as a leader who prizes transparency, is not unique in his use of technology to erase communications about public matters. Government officials elsewhere have occasionally acknowledged their use of disappearing-messages apps, or had it exposed. After Missouri’s previous governor, Eric Greitens (R), was shown to be using the disappearing-message app Confide, that state’s attorney general’s office launched an inquiry. It found no evidence of lawbreaking, but investigators were unable to recover any of the messages. Greitens’s successor has since banned the app’s use.

By allowing officials to communicate without leaving trails, ubiquitous phone apps such as Wickr, Signal, WhatsApp and Confide have outpaced decades-old laws meant to drag public business into the open.

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Hogan declined to be interviewed about his use of Wickr. The governor’s legal office said Wickr messages released to The Washington Post did not show Hogan conducting public business on the app.

Michael Ricci, Hogan’s spokesman, said “the governor has used messaging apps to have political and communications conversations with advisers, many of whom do not work for the state.” He described the messages as “fluid political and media, news of the day conversations.”

There is no exception in Maryland open-records law for “political” or “news of the day” communications. Wickr messages obtained by The Post show Hogan communicating about a range of public issues, including the health crisis caused by the coronavirus. State employees who received and responded to the messages include his chief of staff, senior adviser, chief legislative officer and communications director, records show.

In one instance last year, the governor admonished staffers to curb public statements about limited coronavirus test supplies because he said the comments could spark questions about tests he had arranged to purchase from South Korea. The tests had turned out useless, and his administration was trying to hide that fact from the public.

Government transparency advocates say it’s wrong for Hogan to destroy communications before his claim that they shouldn’t be public can be challenged.

“It is concerning,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which advocates for more open government. “It is counter to our efforts as a state to create more accountability and transparency within our government and just make sure that the people of Maryland are able to trust the work that our leaders are doing.”

‘Burn-On-Read’

Ricci told The Post that Hogan’s use of Wickr is managed and paid for by Hogan’s political apparatus. “It would obviously be inappropriate for the governor to have political conversations on state systems, so this is a sensible practice,” Ricci said in an emailed response to written questions. He said the governor’s use of messaging apps dates back to his 2018 campaign for reelection.

Two years earlier, the Associated Press obtained many of his emails through a public records request. The resulting report quoted Hogan calling reporters “idiots” and showcased other blunt missives from the governor as he complained about newspaper editorials and how he looked in a photo.

Under Maryland’s Public Information Act, government records are presumed public unless one of various exceptions applies. The exceptions are designed to protect interests that include avoiding unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, preserving the ability of policymakers to have free exchanges of ideas and more.

Maryland’s law, like those of other states and the federal Freedom of Information Act, spells out how to determine whether a record might be covered under one of the exceptions. If someone requesting a record disagrees with the government’s decision to withhold it, that can be contested in court.

The process is circumvented by apps that can destroy government records before any determination of whether they should be public can be made. Such apps have proliferated during the past decade, following the rise of smartphones and spurred by concerns about government surveillance of private citizens.

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Messages in Wickr chatrooms, under the app’s default setting, disappear 30 days from when they are sent. A user can also turn on the “Burn-On-Read” timer, which schedules messages for destruction after they are read. Burn-On-Read timers for chatrooms used by Hogan were set to 24 hours, records show.

Under Maryland law, every unit of state government must have a records-retention schedule, which dictates how long each type of record must be kept. The governor’s office argues that it is not subject to this law because it is not a “unit of the state government” but rather its head.

Ricci said there “is no need or expectation for casual and political conversations to be preserved, and no authority requires it.”

Maryland’s Office of the Governor for many decades has turned records over to the State Archives at the end of a governor’s term. For recent administrations, these records have included emails but generally not text messages. Hogan’s administration has said he will do likewise, presumably at the end of 2022.

Elaine Bachmann, who Hogan appointed as state archivist in June, said a records-retention schedule from the governor’s office is “something we’d like to have.”

“We do have some outreach that was done at the beginning of the Hogan administration that I hope to follow up on over the next year,” Bachmann said.

Edward Papenfuse, who served as Maryland’s state archivist from 1975 to 2013, said his office tried to hold on to electronic communications “that were part of all the business of government,” but it wasn’t always easy.

“My argument is the best society is one in which all information that is processed by government is publicly available, and that includes electronic records,” Papenfuse said. “To in any way try to eliminate communications that are part of the way in which government functions, or dysfunctions, is extraordinarily bad policy.”

The ‘COVID-19’ room

During the summer of 2020, Hogan published his political memoir, “Still Standing.” He wrote that if “you are transparent and let people know what’s happening, give them the straight facts, they will stand beside you through thick and thin.”

Also that summer, Hogan’s then-chief of staff, Roy McGrath, resigned amid questions about a $233,647 severance package he had received from the Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-state agency, after stepping down as its head to become Hogan’s top aide. Hogan repeatedly denied knowledge of the payout, while McGrath maintained the governor knew of and approved it.

In October, McGrath was indicted on charges including wire fraud and embezzlement, stemming partly from the severance. Soon after his indictment, McGrath provided The Post with Wickr messages he received from Hogan during the episode. “I know you did nothing wrong. I know it is unfair. I will stand with you,” Hogan wrote McGrath in one message.

Ricci has acknowledged that Hogan sent the message to McGrath but said it was before the governor learned more details about how the severance package was obtained.

The Post obtained an email from Wickr to a former state employee listing Andrew Brightwell, a longtime Hogan campaign aide, as the administrator for Wickr’s “Larry Hogan” network. Brightwell, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, was political director for the nonprofit Change Maryland, which helped Hogan power his ascent to the governor’s mansion. More recently, Brightwell has helped with another nonprofit, An America United, which is attempting to raise Hogan’s national profile.

Records show Hogan using Wickr to communicate about various issues of public importance.

During the spring of 2020, as the pandemic worsened, Hogan arranged for the state to buy 500,000 coronavirus tests from South Korea. Initially, the governor went on national television touting the purchase, “which is going to save thousands of lives in our state.” But his staffers soon realized the tests were flawed and couldn’t be used. Hogan and his administration quietly replaced the tests, then spent months covering up the issue.

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Copies of Wickr messages obtained by The Post show Hogan’s dismay, as his administration was trying to replace the tests, at those who seemed to acknowledge continuing test supply limitations. “Stop talking about 1,000 f---ing tests!!!! Read what I say. Tests are unlimited,” the governor wrote top staffers in a Wickr chatroom called “COVID-19.”

“Why do we keep talking about such a small number of tests which begs the question where are the half million,” Hogan wrote.

‘Inner Sanctum’

To confirm the governor’s Wickr use, The Post in November submitted public records requests for messages and chatroom listings from Hogan and about two dozen of his staffers. The requests asked each to take “urgent and immediate” steps to preserve the records before they were destroyed.

In response, a governor’s office lawyer, Christopher Mincher, provided eight screenshots or photos of phones containing messages or chatroom listings. The governor’s office did not concede they were “public records” or made “in connection with the transaction of public business,” but it provided them “in the interest of transparency,” Mincher said in a letter to The Post.

The phones showed chatrooms with names such as “Inner Sanctum,” “Executive Team” and “Front Office.” In one series of mid-November messages, the governor, under the name L H, asked staffers about blowback from Baltimore business owners irritated that he was using photos taken with them to promote his “re-fund the police initiative.”

“I have no idea what that is even about?” the governor wrote. His communications director, Ricci, replied to Hogan that the dust-up had occurred after his office used photos of his tour in the neighborhood in a social media post plugging the program.

Hogan’s chief legislative officer, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., replied in a message: “From what I can tell it’s one person loudly protesting ‘refund police.’ The feed back I got from folks who actually live in area on your visit was overwhelming positive.”

In another series of messages, Hogan asked staffers how much Maryland stood to get from the infrastructure package just approved by Congress.

“We don’t know [yet],” replied his chief of staff, Amelia Chassé Alcivar.

Hogan’s senior adviser, Ronald Gunzburger, responded: “Presume part of the answer is also ‘it depends’….”

Other screenshots provided by the governor’s lawyers showed that his special assistant, Carter Imes, had created a Wickr chatroom and that Hogan’s scheduler, Christina Kawata, had changed the moderator of the “Executive Team” chatroom.

It was clear by dates shown on another screenshot that it was taken 24 hours or more after The Post’s requests, by which point any responsive messages on the phone would probably already have been destroyed.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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