Indiana vague about reasons for withholding Pence’s emails
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana officials are refusing to release an indeterminate number of emails from private AOL.com accounts Mike Pence used as governor, and they’re not saying whether the vice president’s lawyers influenced which messages should be withheld.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office has released more than 1,300 pages of his predecessor’s emails, although most of the documents — released in multiple batches over recent months — contain little substance. They largely consist of correspondence from staffers sharing press releases or news articles, laudatory notes from Pence’s fans and documents so heavily redacted they’re barely readable.
“It’s hard to justify withholding information after a governor leaves office,” said Nate Jones, of The National Security Archive at George Washington University, which advocates for government transparency. “It makes it look like they aren’t subscribing to good open government practices.”
A Pence spokeswoman declined to comment on Monday.
The Associated Press has sought emails from Pence’s private AOL accounts, which he regularly used for state business, since shortly after he was tapped to be Donald Trump’s running mate in July 2016.
The emails released to date reveal little about some of the divisive topics that defined Pence’s term as governor, including a religious objections law he signed in 2015 that critics decried as discriminatory against gays. Amid the national backlash, Pence held a press conference to push back, hired a crisis management firm and ultimately signed a “fix” into law.
But 293 pages of recently released emails about the controversy predominantly consist of news story summaries and links. A few show Pence staffers providing an opinion article to the Wall Street Journal. And one exchange alerts him that the publication of a critical story was postponed. Left out, however, was any meaningful discussion about one of the most difficult situations he faced as governor.
Indiana has a weaker public records law than many states, and Holcomb’s office says it can withhold records deemed “advisory” or “deliberative.” Those classifications are open-ended, giving state officials wide latitude to shield from disclosure documents containing internal debates, advice or speculation. Holcomb’s office also declined to provide an accounting of the number of emails it withheld because state law doesn’t require it.
“Not knowing what they are withholding is a big disadvantage to the public,” said Gerry Lanosga, an Indiana University journalism professor and former investigative reporter. “Without at least an index or some detail about what those records are, it’s hard not to be skeptical.”
During the presidential campaign, Pence suggested that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while secretary of state disqualified her from becoming president because it threatened state security. His aides have said charges of hypocrisy regarding his own private email use are unfair because there is a big difference between the secretary of state’s correspondence about sensitive national matters and business conducted by a governor.
Pence aides have said he that he had an Indiana government email account, but it is unclear if he regularly used it. Most records released before and after he was governor either obscured his email account domain name or show they were routed to an AOL.com account.
Still, one of Pence’s AOL.com accounts was subject to a phishing scheme in spring 2016, when his contacts were sent an email falsely claiming that the governor and his wife were stranded in the Philippines and needed money.
At Holcomb’s request, Pence’s attorneys provided guidance about what could be withheld, state records show. Holcomb’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Wilson, declined to comment specifically on how much weight was given to that advice but said the governor’s office is “independently evaluating” disclosure decisions.
Pence long presented himself as a champion of the free press, but his office regularly delayed or withheld documents when he was governor.
It was only after Pence’s use of the private AOL accounts was widely reported in March that he handed over 13 boxes of paper copies. A searchable electronic database wasn’t provided to state officials until July, as they faced a backlog of more than 50 records requests for Pence’s emails from news organization, activists and political parties, among others.
As governor, Pence stuck to a tight script, often offering vague talking points instead of concrete detail. The records could offer a window into weighty public policy decisions Pence made.
Besides the religious objections law, he also drew negative attention over new abortion restrictions he signed into law, and a standoff he had with the Catholic Church over attempts to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indianapolis.
Indiana also faced two high-profile public health crises during his time in office. Public health officials have said Pence’s initial reluctance to allow needle exchanges exacerbated a southern Indiana HIV outbreak tied to intravenous drug use. In 2016, lead contamination from a superfund site in northwest Indiana eventually led to the evacuation of a housing complex.