After six months, Pence has now turned over all state-related AOL emails, his attorney says

(INDYSTAR.com) - It took nearly six months after he left the governor's office, but Vice President Mike Pence and his legal team say they have now provided Indiana officials with all emails from his personal AOL account involving state business.

Pence attorney Karoline Jackson said in a recent email to the state's legal counsel that  “a complete electronic production of state records" from Pence's time as governor had been delivered to the state as of June 23.

The office of Pence's successor, Gov. Eric Holcomb, said the records consist of state-related emails from two AOL accounts Pence used as governor. 

"Our office is now in the process of reviewing the records, and we anticipate being in a position to provide copies of records that are responsive to pending (public record) requests soon," Holcomb spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said. 

Pence spokesman Marc Lotter declined to answer questions about the emails, but said in an statement that Pence's "official documents related to his service as governor are being preserved in full compliance with state law."

Previously, Pence had only provided some of his AOL emails to the state, and those he did provide were in paper form, making them difficult to search.

With the full electronic cache in hand, the state can now begin to process roughly 50 public record requests for Pence’s emails. Some of those requests are more than a year old and about half were made while Pence was governor, but went unfulfilled.

The pending requests seek Pence’s emails on a variety of topics, including Donald Trump, Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, voter fraud, Syrian refugee resettlement, lead contamination in East Chicago and the HIV outbreak in Scott County.

Neither the Holcomb administration nor Pence's office would disclose how many emails from Pence's AOL accounts have now been transferred electronically to the state and it remains unclear how many of those emails were previously unavailable for public record searches. 

The law firm overseeing the delivery of the emails on behalf of Pence is Barnes and Thornburg, whose managing partner, Bob Grand, is a top fundraiser for Trump and Pence. 

Pence's attorneys are only providing emails they consider to be related to state business, but Lotter did not answer questions about how those determinations are being made.

Jackson, the Barnes and Thornburg attorney who sent the email to the state's attorneys confirming that all emails had been transferred, did not respond to a message from IndyStar.

Government accountability advocates said the role of Pence's campaign attorneys in deciding which emails to release raises questions about whether political considerations are playing a role in those decisions.

"What is the criteria his private law firm used to determine what is private use and what is state use?" said Zachary Baiel, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. "This can definitely be seen as a way to filter out records from being in the public domain."

Also worrying, accountability advocates said, is the six-month lag time between when Pence left office and when the emails were provided. 

"It certainly feels like the Pence folks were dragging their feet," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. "He shouldn't have been using a private account for public business in the first place. The former governor's actions have cost us in terms of time and money."

The Holcomb administration has hired its own outside law firm, McNeely Stephenson, to help process the large backlog of public record requests for Pence's emails. The state's contract with the firm, led by a former Shelby County Republican Party chairman, could cost taxpayers up to $100,000. 

How many of Pence’s emails ultimately will be released to the public remains unsettled.

Exemptions in Indiana’s public records laws allow government officials to withhold records for a variety of reasons, including those that are deliberative or fall under attorney-client privilege.

The state is currently embroiled in a legal fight with consumer advocacy group Citizens Action Coalition over some of Pence's emails.

In December, the group requested communications between the Pence administration, the Trump campaign and Carrier Corp. regarding a deal that prevented some planned layoffs at Carrier's Indianapolis furnace factory. State officials, however, said the request was too vague.

Pence's use of personal email accounts for state business first came to light in March, when IndyStar obtained nearly 30 emails that showed Pence corresponding on homeland security and public safety issues. The state withheld an undisclosed number of additional emails because they were considered too sensitive for public release.

Cybersecurity experts say the emails raise questions about whether sensitive information was adequately protected from hackers, given that personal accounts are typically less secure than government email accounts. In fact, Pence's AOL account was hacked in the summer of 2016.

Open government advocates also expressed concerns about transparency because personal emails aren’t necessarily captured on state servers that are searched in response to public records requests.

Indiana’s public records laws generally requires public officials to preserve their state-related communications so that they can be searched in response to public record requests, though the laws do not expressly address the use of personal email accounts for state business.

Indiana’s public access counselor recommends that public officials who use private accounts forward or copy state-related emails to their state accounts, so that they can be preserved and searched in response to public records requests.

There is no indication Pence took such steps.

On the day IndyStar disclosed Pence's use of personal email accounts for state business, his attorneys turned over 13 boxes of printed-out emails to the state and said additional emails would be forthcoming.

Pence has said he violated no Indiana laws. In March, for example, he said: "We had outside counsel review all of my previous email records to identify any that ever mentioned or referenced state business."

Pence has also dismissed comparisons to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, which he heavily criticized on the campaign trail last year. 

"There's no comparison whatsoever between Hillary Clinton's practice — having a private server, misusing classified information, destroying emails when they were requested by the Congress," he said in March.

Call IndyStar reporter Tony Cook at (317) 444-6081. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

INDYSTAR.com


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