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 email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.