The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Larry Hogan skirts disclosure requirements one self-destructing message at a time

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan speaks at a news conference Jan. 11 in Annapolis. (Brian Witte/AP)
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Secretive politicians predate the smartphone age, heaven knows, as do many who employ baroque means to conceal their words and actions from the voters they serve.

So the fact that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has sidestepped the state’s open-records laws by means of technology — a self-destructing message app — is not exactly unprecedented. That doesn’t make it less sneaky.

It seems that Mr. Hogan, burned once, was intent on avoiding a repeat. In 2016, a public-records request by the Associated Press yielded a trove of the governor’s emails, which were by turns acid-tongued about journalists and thin-skinned about his public image. By 2018, when Mr. Hogan, a Republican, was running for a second term, he found a workaround.

As reported by The Post’s Steve Thompson, it came in the form of an smartphone app called Wickr, among whose features is a “Burn-On-Read” timer that erases messages on a schedule determined by its users. In the case of Mr. Hogan, his senior staffers and other associates, messages in their closed chat rooms self-destruct after 24 hours, ensuring them a forum beyond the reach of the media’s, and the public’s, prying eyes.

The app, as used by the governor, is also a handy means of eluding Maryland’s Public Information Act, which has been on the books for more than 50 years. That law is meant to preserve government records for public access and posterity — or, if officials oppose their release, provide a process by which the dispute can be adjudicated in court.

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Mr. Hogan declined to discuss his Wickr messages with The Post. His spokesman, Michael Ricci, said he uses the app for “political” or “news of the day” exchanges with advisers in and out of government. Those are not categories exempted from the open-records law. Similarly, the governor’s aides insisted that while the law covers “units” of state government, the governor’s office is not a “unit” but rather the head of government. Now there’s an argument likely to disintegrate on contact with a court of law.

In at least one instance uncovered by The Post, Mr. Hogan took to Wickr in an effort at political damage control arising from his own misstep early in the pandemic, when 500,000 coronavirus tests he arranged to purchase from South Korea turned out to be useless, a fact the governor tried to hush up. “Why do we keep talking about such a small number of tests which begs the question where are the half million,” he wrote, scolding his aides.

Like everyone else, governors make mistakes. Like everyone else, they’re also subject to the law. In this case, it seems clear that Mr. Hogan has come to see the public-records law as an annoyance, and Wickr as a way of circumventing it. In so doing, he effectively negates the broad right of access to records pertaining to the people’s business — exactly the right enshrined in law. The governor would be wise to press the self-destruct button on Wickr, and switch back to email.