On Friday, American Oversight sent a letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh asking him to take action to prevent records of state officials’ communications from being destroyed by auto-deleting messaging apps, and to issue guidance clarifying that Maryland’s public records law applies to texts and requires retention of official communications.
“As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, it is within your authority to issue guidance on compliance with Maryland’s public records law so that record retention practices keep pace with technological developments such as auto-deletion technology and other ephemeral messaging applications,” American Oversight wrote.
In December 2021, the Washington Post reported that Hogan and members of his office had conducted official business using Wickr, an app that allows users to send messages that automatically delete after a certain amount of time. According to the Post, employees of Hogan’s office used Wickr to discuss the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, raising questions about his office’s compliance with Maryland’s public records retention policies.
In January, Hogan argued that Wickr messages are not official government communications and that there was “absolutely nothing wrong” with his use of the technology. His office also claimed that it is not subject to the state’s law requiring records-retention schedules.
In March and April, American Oversight filed several public information requests to Hogan’s office seeking records that could further show how often and under what circumstances Wickr was used, as well as what (if any) practices the office has in place to retain self-destructing messages sent through the app. The governor’s office responded that it had located no responsive records regarding the office’s retention policy, and produced only one Wickr message in response to our requests.
“The January 6 investigation and the deleted Secret Service and Pentagon text messages have clearly shown the high costs of allowing vital public records to be destroyed,” said Heather Sawyer, executive director of American Oversight. “In a democracy, government officials work for the public. Their records belong to the public and must be preserved. The use of Wickr runs counter to Maryland’s Public Information Act, and the attorney general has the authority and responsibility to ensure that Maryland’s leaders comply with the law.”
In recent weeks, text message retention issues have been at the center of the House Jan. 6 committee’s investigation of the 2021 attack on the Capitol. Following reports that text messages from Jan. 6, 2021, from top officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense had been deleted, both agencies updated their policies to prevent the phones of departed officials from being wiped in the future.
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