N.C. Media Orgs Take on Governor Over Public Records

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By: By GARY D. ROBERTSON

Media organizations from across North Carolina sued Gov. Mike Easley on Monday, accusing his administration of violating the state’s public records law through the “systematic deletion, destruction or concealment” of e-mail messages.

The complaint filed in Wake County Superior Court asks a judge to declare that Easley violated the law because his staff told Cabinet agency employees to delete or destroy e-mails sent to and from the governor’s office.

Easley also violated the law personally last month when he threw away a handwritten note from former state Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom, the lawsuit said.

Easley disclosed he had thrown away the note shortly after The News & Observer of Raleigh published a series of stories concluding last month about the failures of the state’s mental health system, which Hooker Odom led as department secretary. Hooker Odom explained in the note why she didn’t talk publicly about mental health reform efforts.

The media groups, including The Associated Press, want the court to require Easley and his office to comply with the law, to try to recover the deleted e-mails and to provide previously undisclosed messages.

Easley spokesman Seth Effron said the governor’s office had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office likely would defend Easley in the case, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

E-mails sent and received by state employees are considered public records if they contain information related to the transaction of public business. E-mails can be destroyed under guidelines set by the Department of Cultural Resources, but the lawsuit alleges the department’s current guidelines don’t comply with the law.

Easley has assembled a panel to recommend changes to the guidelines by next month, an effort he has said will ensure the public records law is being followed.

In addition to the AP, the media groups who sued are The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer; the North Carolina Press Association; The Fayetteville Observer; The Wilson Daily Times; The Alamance News; Freedom Communications Inc. and Freedom Eastern North Carolina Publications Inc.; Media General Operations Inc.; and The John Locke Foundation.

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