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Private phones used for public business in governor's office

Deal staff’s campaign-paid cellphones used for government, election tasks

POSTED: January 21, 2012 11:48 p.m.

Gov. Nathan Deal spent thousands of dollars in campaign funds last year on cellphone service for his staff.

Most of the employees who carry the privately funded phones are among the highest ranking officials in the governor's office and use the devices for both government and campaign business, a practice that is legal but that could make it harder to stay accountable to the public.

The campaign-funded phones are not an uncommon resource for first-term governors who plan a second run because election business cannot be conducted with taxpayer money.

And Deal is actively campaigning. Expenditure reports show he raised more than $1 million last year, his first year in office, for a possible 2014 re-election bid. He spent more than $26,000 on mobile devices for himself and his staff.

Deal's chief spokesman, Brian Robinson, said senior staff members in the governor's office do not use state-provided mobile devices, though other employees do.

He said the campaign Blackberrys and iPads senior staff use are meant to safeguard against any illegal use of state resources for political gain.

"This is a standard procedure amongst governor's offices, because we have to protect the sanctity of government resources," Robinson said.

Though some documents are shielded from view, most conversations by government officials are public record.

In general, any email or phone record used to conduct government business is subject to the state's Open Records Act, according to Stefan Ritter, senior assistant attorney general.

Government officials are not allowed to use their private devices to shield public business from view, Ritter said.

But even with those mandates, there are different levels of accountability for government records produced on privately funded and publicly funded devices.

For example, Ritter said the bill for a privately funded phone is out of the reach of the law while a publicly funded phone bill would be accessible, Ritter said.

"You can't conduct government business on your private machines and think that it's going to stay private," said Ritter. "But that leaves to the side the whole difficult question about how do you get it (public records). If you don't have it, you may have a hard time getting it."

Deal's predecessor, Sonny Perdue, also used campaign funds to buy Blackberry devices for his top staffers in his first year in office, 2003 campaign expenditure reports show.

Dan McLagan directed communications during Perdue's first campaign for office in 2002. He returned to work for Perdue in July 2003 doing similar work but doubling as an employee of the state's highest office.

When he did, McLagan said he carried two phones on his hip: one for state business and another for the campaign.

"There's official business and there's campaign business, and you have to coordinate how that's going to happen," McLagan said. "It wouldn't matter if you used your campaign phone for state use, because you'd just be benefiting the taxpayers of the state. The problem, I think, would be the opposite way, if you were using a state resource to do something campaign-related."

McLagan and former Perdue spokesman, Bert Brantley, said the practice was common with other states' governor's offices as well.

David Hudson, general counsel for the Georgia Press Association and an expert on Georgia's sunshine laws, agreed with the practice. He adds that if Deal's office uses a campaign phone or email address to conduct state business, that would be subject to the state's Open Records Act.

The issue, according to Hudson, is proving the public records exist on the private phone. That isn't an easy task, and it largely leaves government officials on the honor system when it comes to providing public records generated on private accounts.

"It'd be very difficult," Hudson said. "You'd have to prove it. I mean, they would say ‘we've followed the law,' and that would stand unless someone had the evidence to the contrary."

The public, to some extent, is always at the mercy of government officials' honesty when it comes to following the letter of open records laws, said David Cuillier, interim director of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona and author of a book on accessing public records.

"It's very easy for any public official to hide things if they want to and lie. They can do that whether it's a public computer mainframe or whether it's AT&T personal cellphones," Cuillier said. "Either way, they can be honest and transparent or they choose to be dishonest and lie. And officials, unfortunately, do both."

Robinson said while top staff uses private resources to conduct state business, the governor's office is committed to following the rules of the law.

The spokesman said the governor's office has turned "over reams of information through open records requests," and after consulting with a lawyer, Robinson added that the reams of information might include documents from campaign-funded accounts.

But for the most part, Georgians must trust that it's the case.

"It's a lot easier to account for the stuff when it's in the public sphere, because we've got multiple ways that we can go get it and look for it," Ritter said. "But when it's private and it's on someone's own PDA, it's very hard to necessarily be sure that you've gotten everything from them, because they're going to be primarily in control of that."

 



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