update: my government manager is thwarting public record laws by emailing things to my personal email account

Remember the letter-writer who worked for a government agency subject to public records requests and whose manager’s manager was sending work emails to her personal Gmail account and asking that she respond only from her personal account, keeping it off the government servers? Here’s the update.

I can’t remember if I mentioned this in the original letter or in one of the comments, but the last straw for me was when my manager’s manager asked me to create a brand new separate Gmail account just for work purposes. That floored me, and I followed some of your reader’s advice, while considering the context of how our office works.

First, I forwarded all e-mails that were sent to my Gmail to my work email and then printed copies. I then asked my manager to schedule a meeting for her and I with our department’s legal team. She was very supportive of this, and was feeling uncomfortable with also being asked to use her personal Gmail and felt it was ridiculous that he would not honor the simple request of using work email for work. The meeting with our legal team was great. We outlined what was happening, shared what we had tried to communicate with him already, and just reiterated that we felt very uncomfortable with what we were being asked to do. She thanked us for letting her know and confirmed that our Gmail would still be subject to public records requests, and that trying to use Gmail to get around that was dumb. That afternoon, our boss got called into a meeting with the head of legal, and after that meeting it was never brought up again. So all in all it was a happy update!

Thanks again for running my questions. It was helpful to have the feedback from your readers that I was not being crazy and that this was a real issue. Without it, I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable pushing for that meeting with legal.

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. could be anyone*

    The first time I read this I wanted to ask the boss if he had ever heard of Hilary Clinton? I am glad this has all been straightened out. But it does beg the question of what the boss was tryng to hide.

      1. CMT*

        Obligatory “language changes” comment to the obligatory pedant reply to any use of “begs the question”.

        1. Kas*

          Obligatory insertion of “incorrect” between “any” and “use of” :)

          [Obligatory multiple re-reads of any comment posted to a language discussion sub-thread]

  2. JMegan*

    I was one of the ones getting hives at your original post (and I just checked, my original response was “this is a Very Big Deal.”) So I’m very glad to hear that you reported it, that you were taken seriously, and that the behaviour has stopped. Well done on all of that!

    1. JMegan*

      Also, I can’t resist leaving an update to the story I referenced in my original post. Two of the senior people involved in the Ontario gas plant scandal have just been charged with breach of trust, and other charges related to the destruction of public records. If convicted, they could each face up to fourteen years in jail.

      Just to further demonstrate that the OP was right, and the department head was very, very, wrong.

  3. ZSD*

    Wow, good outcome! Like AMG, I’m surprised the department head wasn’t fired. But I’m very glad that things have gotten straightened out!

  4. sunny-dee*

    Is anyone else curious *why* the department head was trying to avoid public records laws? What is he doing?

    1. Observer*

      Yes, I was. On the other hand, sometimes there are legitimate and semi-legitimate (ie not crossing the bounds of legality or ethical guidelines) why you might not want some things to be subject to public records. And, of course, there are always the people who just don’t want to deal with oversight.

      The solution to the latter is work for yourself in an unregulated industry. And the solution to the latter is DON’T PUT IT IN WRITING. But, some people want to have their cake and eat it, too.

      1. CanadianKat*

        Possible legitimate reasons:
        – raising a potentially very sensitive issue without enough knowledge about it (i.e. where there’s a good chance that there is no issue)
        – discussing how to address a public relations issue (i.e. how to comment on a recent event, so that the organization is presented in the best light, and so that there is one coherent response even though multiple departments may be involved)
        – weighing a decision that would benefit the organization but would be detrimental to an arm’s length party

        Legitimate solutions to that:
        – phone calls
        – face to face meetings
        – proper records management (which may include timely deletion of information that is not required to be kept)

        My emails would generally be exempt from disclosure, as legal advice, but even then, once in a while, I have comments that I would prefer not to put in writing.

  5. stk*

    I remember worrying about the potential ramifications for you at the time, OP, and I’m so glad that ended up going so well!

  6. Brett*

    Since a few people are commenting about firing (sorry if this sounds too much like a lecture)…

    Normally a department head in government is a patronage position (political appointment not based on merit). They serve at the discretion of the chief executive (governor, mayor, county executive, etc), and “firing” does not apply to them in the normal sense. Any firing would have to come down from the chief executive directly, and since they are politically connected to the chief executive that is not going to happen unless there is a major break between the department head and the chief executive. (The obvious exception is when a new chief executive is elected, in which case it is expected and normal for them to clean house and fire most of the existing department heads.)

    Instead, the department head is given the opportunity to resign on their own terms -if- the issue rises to the level where the chief executive wants to replace them. This particular case might not even go across the desk of the chief executive, much less rise to the level where they want a resignation. The resignation might actually be more politically damaging to the chief executive since it would bring attention to the issue! This might, down the road, lead to a shorter term for the department head than expected though since it should give the chief executive concern about their competency and fitness for being a government department head. (But sometimes this sort of behavior starts at the top with the chief executive and permeates local party politics.)

    Big kudos to department legal for fixing the problem while protecting the OP and their direct boss!

    1. doreen*

      That’s going to depend very much on the specific government entity. My very large (31K employees) agency, for example, is called the Department of ____, but the head of the agency is the Commissioner ( who is appointed by the chief executive ). When a memo is addressed to “Department heads” , it’s going to people much further down the chain of command- below the Deputy , Associate and Assistant Commissioners and below the Directors and Assistant Directors . Department heads are the people in charge of a relatively small area ( 30 or 40 employees max) and they are first level managers , not appointed by the chief executive ( although they may be appointed by the Commissioner), and are subject to disciplinary action , demotion and firing just like any other employee.

        1. doreen*

          I am not sure whether you mean 30K is too large for a commissioner or too small , but agency heads in both my state and my city frequently hold the title of “Commissioner” and are appointed by the governor or the mayor. It might be a 2000 employee agency (NYC Dept of Homeless Services) or a 51K employee agency.(NYPD). There are also commissioners that lead much smaller groups (such as county commissioners of jurors) , and agencies led by a board of commissioners where one is designated as the chair. Some of those have Executive Directors responsible for the day-to-day operations, while in others, the Executive Director is the agency head with no board or commissioners. “Commissioner” ,”Executive Director” and “Department Head ” (and probably many other titles) are going to mean very different things in different agencies. If I were going to compare my agency to a Federal agency, the commissioner of my agency would not be the equivalent of the commissioner of the IRS – he would be the equivalent of the Secretary of the Treasury.

    2. JAM*

      You could even have an elected official as your department head and they can’t be fired in some jurisdictions. Just voted out when the term is up. Or retained because of their political party even though they are bad for government. We had a major issue with harassment in my jurisdiction that resulted in something like 7 employee lawsuits and a new ordinance but because the department head was elected, employees just had to tolerate it or find a new job. There can be ways for higher powers to help protect employees but if that elected official causing the mischief was raised in an orphanage with your state’s richest billionaire, you might not interfere. Hypothetically. ;) YMMV.

  7. hayling*

    One of the great things about AAM is the ability to get a sanity check from Alison and the readers. I think we have all been in weird/toxic work situations where you need a neutral third party to go “whoa, that’s weird/awful/scary/illegal.”

  8. Anon for this*

    And then there are places where the employees are asked to use Snap Chat so there is no record. Can’t produce a record if one isn’t kept!

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