The Office of State Ethics has quietly destroyed a quarter-century's worth of public records concerning the finances of present and former public officials, drawing a protest from the head of an open-government group who says the thousands of shredded files were an irreplaceable resource.
"It's surprising that anyone would think that it's OK to just 'deep-six' them forever, if those are records ... of public officials' financial dealings" filed under their "obligations of disclosure," said J. Herbert Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
"You'd need to keep those, just for the sake of history," Smith said. "Let's not forget that we can store electronic data ... forever." He noted that paper records can be scanned into electronic form. Also, many of the financial statements now are filed electronically to begin with. "So why get rid of them?"
The answer, according to the state official who has presided over the records' destruction in the past few years, is partly that the ethics office's records had piled up out of control over the years and needed to be put into order.
Carol Carson, executive director of the ethics office, said she has followed statutory procedures that recognize agencies' need to dispose of old records that are no longer relevant to current operations or enforcement issues. She said when she was hired in December 2007, she inherited an office that had suffered through well-publicized internal problems, adding that its records were in a shambles and the clutter needed to be addressed.
"I was trying to get a handle on an agency that was in disarray," she said. "I followed the statute."
In addition, she said the records destruction would continue on a regular schedule as the years go on: Annual disclosures will continue to be disposed of after they are 5 years old.
For more than three decades, the agency, formerly called the State Ethics Commission, has required state officials to submit annual disclosures of their financial interests, including property they own.
These documents have been kept on file for use not only by the agency to help enforce ethics laws and prevent "conflicts of interest" — that is, taking an official action affecting one's personal or financial interests — but they also have been used by the press and the public to find out about the financial connections of those in government.
Rowland Files Gone
For example, you could go to the Office of State Ethics in Hartford and look up the financial disclosures filed by John G. Rowland for the years he was governor from 1995 to 2004, before he went to prison for receiving valuable benefits from businessmen — some in the form of improvements to a lakefront property he owned in Litchfield.
But you can't do that anymore. Pretty much all of the so-called "statements of financial interests" for years prior to 2005 have now been destroyed — shredded if on paper, erased if in electronic form.
Few people outside the agency knew about the "records disposition" program. The Courant bumped into it last week when it asked to see all of the financial disclosures submitted by the current Democratic and Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate: Republican Linda McMahon, who served on the State Board of Education in 2009 and 2010; and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, who served four years in the state House of Representatives and four years as a state senator from 1999 to 2007.
McMahon's annual disclosures, submitted in 2009 and 2010, were on file. But only one of Murphy's was there — for 2005, filed on the deadline of May 1, 2006. All of the earlier reports for Murphy, going back to 1999, were missing; they would have been among the files destroyed under the "records disposition" procedure. (There was no record that Murphy ever filed a report for 2006, which was the subject of a story published on the courant.com website Friday and in Saturday morning's edition of the newspaper.)
It was after Carson was asked about the Murphy files from 1999 to 2004 that she explained the program of "records retention" and "records disposition."
She said that state statutes establish a procedure under which agencies seek written permission from two key officials at the Connecticut State Library to dispose of records on a schedule after a certain number of years, depending on their nature. For example, legal opinions by the ethics agency must be permanently archived, allegations outside the agency's jurisdiction must be kept only one year, and most other records must be kept five years, according to "records retention schedule" that state library officials have approved.
Among those required to be kept five years are "statements and reports filed by, and with, the office of State Ethics" — such as the officials' annual financial disclosure statements.
Carson said she has briefed her agency's supervisory panel, the nine-member Citizen's Ethics Advisory Board. Official minutes of one briefing do not indicate much discussion or deliberation about whether documents to be destroyed — such as the statements of financial interest — should be preserved.
Shredding Not Required
The state statutes that Carson cited, as well as the retention and disposition schedules approved by state library officials, do not require destruction of the documents. They only say it's all right to destroy them if officials want to. The statements of financial interests for the public officials could be retained if the agency decided they were worth saving.
Carson produced a sheaf of 11 "records disposition authorization" forms that were approved periodically by the state library officials, dating from Oct. 31, 2008, to Feb. 28, 2012. The most recent ones were stamped with the signatures of State Archivist Mark Jones and Public Records Administrator LeAnn Power.
Power said she approves agencies' requests after discussions with the requesting officials and committees at the library. One consideration is the "historical" or "archival" value of records, she said, but "very rarely would we require them to retain [records] longer if the statute says five years."
Early this year, Jones and Power gave Carson and the ethics agency permission to destroy all records dating from January 1978 to January 2007 in the following categories, as listed on the authorization form: "Public official & State Employee Filing Records"; "Lobbyist Filing Records"; "Electronic copies of Public Official & State Employee Filing Records"; and "Electronic copies of Lobbyist Filing Records."
That means that the destruction of officials' financial disclosures for the year 2005 was permitted by that order, because the deadline for their filing was May 1, 2006.
Carson noted that her agency's statute of limitations for pursuing ethics violations only reaches back five years, and said that the statements of financial interests become irrelevant to enforcement after that much time passes.
However, that explanation did not satisfy Smith, the open-government advocate and retired newspaper editor. He said that Carson and her agency have gone too far and are wiping the public record clean of irreplaceable records as they move indiscriminately forward with the bureaucratic equivalent of cleaning out the attic.
Smith said that the statements of financial interest are different from routine correspondence or reports on matters tied to moments long past.
Nowadays, more than 2,500 officials — elected officials, political appointees, and influential state administrators, mostly — are required to file the annual disclosure statements. The ones most worth keeping, Smith said, would include the annual statements from elected officials such as the 151 members of the state House of Representatives, the 36 state senators, statewide elected officials such as the governor and the attorney general, and top political appointees such as commissioners of state departments.
It remains to be seen whether publicity about the ethics disclosures' destruction will result in any move by legislators to change records-retention statutes; over the years, some have seemed none too wild about disclosing their financial connections and sources of income — even in the brief, relatively limited manner required in the annual ethics filings. A couple of key lawmakers on a panel that oversees such issues didn't return messages left for them about it last week.
Smith said that the records destruction should be reconsidered.
"I'd urge Connecticut's public officials to not destroy records about public officials," Smith said. "I just thought it was just routine that those things don't disappear. It sounds a little bit like the Soviet Union — where, oops, all of a sudden it disappears. We should not be erasing the records of public officials, especially our top government leaders. We should always have the history of who they are and what they've done."
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.