When the first reports hit that Gov. Nikki Haley and her staff were routinely deleting nearly all of their e-mail correspondence, I had the same reaction many of you had: She’s covering something up.
And the fact that the news came out shortly after state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, and Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler had requested Haley’s e-mails with the Georgia governor and the Georgia Ports Authority only made the administration’s behavior seem even more suspicious.
Now, I’m not so sure Gov. Haley is covering anything up. In fact, I can state with confidence that Nikki isn’t hiding anything — with her latest misstep, it’s clear to everyone that Haley has got to be the most incompetent con artist this state has ever seen. In fact, Nikki isn’t even trying to keep her and her staff’s ineptitude under wraps. She’s reveling it. She’s wallowing in it. She’s wafting it in our faces like a horrendously smelly fart.
So far, this whole debate about the Haley administration’s unprecedented e-mail deletion policy has fallen victim to the misguided he-said-she-said form of journalism in which reporters write about any and all controversies as if they were nothing more than a minor disagreement between two spouses — like whether or not to paint the dining room green or red. The husband says red, the wife says green and, well, we’re supposed to debate amongst ourselves which color we like better. And it’s all done under the guise of objectivity. Ugh.
The truth is sometimes one party is full of shit. They’re lying. They know they’ve done wrong, and they desperately want to convince you otherwise. And unfortunately, the press allows liars to go on lying instead of just calling them out. And that’s where Nikki’s delete-button diddling comes in.
See, the Haley administration has committed a grievous crime against the public good and the historical record. When Nikki and her cronies began deleting e-mails they clearly broke the law. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s illegal. In fact, it’s a misdemeanor that can set back the guilty party between $500 and $5,000 and land them 30 days in jail. Check out S.C. Code of Laws Section 30-1-10 through 30-1-140 and 12-300 through 12-336 if you need to. (For the record, the governor, her staff, and agency and department heads must retain all their correspondence for three years.)
Of course, that’s my interpretation of it, and given that I’m not a lawyer, I decided to double check with somebody in the know. And so I turned to W. Eric Emerson, the director of the state Department of Archives and History. His answer was clear: When it comes to executive-level correspondence — and that includes the governor — the retention cycle is permanent. And that correspondence includes anything going to and from the governor’s office. It doesn’t matter if it’s a memo or e-mail. The law treats them the same.
However, Emerson notes that e-mails pose a particular challenge for the Archives Department. “Before e-mail, you and I wouldn’t send a memo to each other asking the other person to go to lunch,” he says. “E-mail is so instantaneous and people have such easy access to it that people will immediately pop something out to somebody that is not going to have any historical value to it.”
That said, all of it has to be saved. Even that quick message from Haley to Chief of Staff Tim Pearson ordering him to swing by Rush’s to pick up a couple of chili dogs for lunch. “The way it is right now, with the retention cycles for executive correspondence going to and from whoever the executive is, is permanent,” Emerson says. “Once it gets over here, if we have the budget to do a detailed processing of those records, that’s probably something we wouldn’t keep once we got it over here.”
The state archivist also notes that it’s not the decision of the governor’s office — or any office for that matter — to decide what to trash or not. That’s the responsibility of the state Archives Department. “It’s hard for agencies to make that kind of determination on the front end. It’s safer that way,” Emerson says. “Whoever at the agency may think, ‘Well, no one is going to want to see this,’ they are not archivists and historians, so they may not be thinking about it the same way we would about the kinds of things that people ask for over here.”
He adds, “Those documents would come here and then we would determine what is of historical value.”
So far, Emerson says, the Archives Department hasn’t received any material from the governor’s office, but it’s still early going in Haley’s tenure. He does point out that it’s best for state offices to send material to his department periodically instead of all at once.
Emerson acknowledges that the Archives Department has met with Haley’s staff. “Since that article came out, we’ve been in consultation with the governor’s office, and it’s a process where you sit down with an agency and you say this is the Public Records Act, this is how it reads, these are your obligations under the public records act, our obligations, and agencies are more than willing to comply in circumstances like that because it relieves them of the burden of having to take care of documents.”
The Archives Department is currently helping the governor’s office set up retention schedules for documents. Emerson adds, “Especially with turnovers in agencies, a lot of people who are coming into government don’t understand the requirements of the Public Records Act, what’s expected of them, or how records management programs can benefit, so that’s part of what we have to do is educate people about the requirements and the benefits of it.”
Hmm. I don’t know about you, but that last bit resonates a little bit. Could it be that Haley is not really trying to cover up her tracks and that all of this is really just the result of an inexperienced staff? After all, Nikki Haley is like the Michael Jackson of South Carolina state politics. She has surrounded herself with a staff of young boys and girls, many of whom are just a few years out of college or have little to no experience running a state office. Especially one where the leader is as delusional as the wannabe Peter Pan of Neverland Ranch.