Jindal administration continues to skirt records openness

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Louisiana’s public records law gives the governor a sweeping exemption that can keep many issues secret, but the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal appears to be breaking new ground on ways to keep items hidden from citizens.

Administration officials have pushed a wider records exemption – extending their claims across multiple agencies to conceal documents. A Jindal lawyer encouraged LSU officials to shield records about budget decisions. And top members of the governor’s staff have turned to private email accounts in some instances, making their communication more difficult to track or to even know whether it exists.

The efforts seem a stark contrast from the governor’s campaign platform for improving transparency in a government stereotyped as a home for shady deals and corrupt politicians.

Laws that call for open meetings and publicly available records are designed to let the people who live in a state and pay for its operations and services to gain insight about how decisions are made and who’s making them.

“I think records are a matter of public interest and should be open,” former Gov. Buddy Roemer said recently at an event with Louisiana’s four former governors.

Since taking office in 2008, Jindal has refused to open more of his records to public scrutiny, defeating attempts by lawmakers to limit the public records exemption given to the governor’s office.

In 2009, Jindal backed legislation to shield anything considered part of his “deliberative process,” an exemption that has been used to expand what can be kept from public view. The argument is that internal decision-making is protected to allow for the free flow of ideas.

The language has been broadly interpreted by the administration, and records in departments outside the governor’s office have been withheld. Meanwhile, other agencies overseen by Jindal allies have started shielding documents by claiming the privilege and asserting it is established in federal and state case law.

The legal claim has been used to avoid turning over documents about controversial and politically sensitive topics, including the governor’s school voucher program, disagreements over the handling of a controversial tax credit program and budget cuts to the LSU health care system.

A letter obtained by The Advocate newspaper showed that Jindal’s then-chief attorney, Liz Murrill, had advised LSU officials earlier this year to use the deliberative process claim to withhold records about budget cuts and privatization efforts at the university-run hospitals.

That contradicted a previous administration statement to The Associated Press that it hadn’t advised agencies to invoke the privilege to shield documents from public disclosure.

Meanwhile, a method of communication chosen by key administration leaders to discuss $523 million in Medicaid cuts last summer could make it easier to evade public records laws without needing to assert a privilege claim.

Jindal’s top budget adviser Kristy Nichols, health care secretary Bruce Greenstein, Greenstein’s chief of staff and health policy adviser, and Jindal’s communications staff used private email accounts to craft a media strategy for the cuts to public services.

Emails reviewed by AP reveal that non-state government email addresses were used dozens of times by state officials to communicate about a public relations offensive for making steep reductions to programs for the poor and uninsured.

Those documents weren’t provided to AP in response to a public records request, though administration officials agreed that discussions on private email accounts about public business should be subject to public records law.

The emails were provided to AP by an administration official who participated in the discussions and who asked not to be identified because the official wasn’t authorized to release them.

It’s unclear how department attorneys and computer experts who do the leg work in responding to public records requests would know to check individual employees’ personal email accounts for documents complying with a request. Also, there’s no certainty an individual won’t delete public records from a personal account rather than turn them over.

The conversations raise questions about whether the use of private email accounts is widespread across executive branch agencies and what else could be hidden by the Jindal administration.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.