Wednesday, April 21st, 2010
In the middle of a phone-records battle with the Denver Post in 2008, Governor Ritter deactivated his state-issued cell phone, thereby choosing to make all of his mobile communications from a privately paid-for cell phone. The government-issued cell phone was deactivated in July 2008, and has never been reactivated. In August 2008, the Post filed a lawsuit against the Governor after the paper’s request for phone records of the privately paid-for phone were denied.
At the time, the Post noted that the Governor was already rarely using the cell phone that was provided by the taxpayers specifically intended for state business. Instead, Ritter was apparently conducting the majority of his state-business phone calls on his private cell phone. The move allowed him to keep his government-related phone calls shielded from the public after subsequent court rulings said the state’s open records act did not apply to a privately paid-for phone.
Nearly all calls (logs of inbound and outbound calls) made on the government-issued phone would be open record under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). However, the Denver Post noted that even the bill for the Governor’s government-issued cell phone did not have a call-by-call itemization log.
“It’s nice that the Governor is saving the people a few hundred bucks a year by deactivating this government cell phone,” said Independence Institute President Jon Caldara. “But if it means a more open and transparent government, I’d rather he spend the money instead of creating and then exploiting an apparent loophole in the open records act that will potentially set a precedent for other government officials all across Colorado. But to use a poker term, the Governor went ‘all-in’ regarding this dispute with the Post. By deactivating his government cell-phone, he was thumbing his nose at the Post, and also to the state’s open records law.”
The Governor’s office did not respond to emails regarding this story.
The Denver Post declined comment for this story because they are still litigating the case against the Governor. However, shortly after Governor Ritter announced he would not seek re-election in 2010, Post publisher Dean Singleton commented on the case while speaking on the “Caplis and Silverman” radio show on 630 KHOW. “It is absolutely imperative that government be carried out in the open, and it is clearly not right for any politician to conduct government business on his personal cell phone, and not have it available for the public to see,” Singleton told the radio show. “That is a basic disagreement that we have with Governor Ritter, and we think if that decision were allowed to stand, that, you know, every public official in Colorado and elsewhere would just go start doing business on their private cell phones and that is wrong. Government needs to be transparent to all. And, it’s a principle issue for those of us in the press.”
Accessing phone records can be crucial to understanding how certain governments or government officials go about their business on any given day. For example, phone records and logs obtained by reporter Karen Crummy of the Denver Post raised serious questions about Stephanie Villafuerte’s involvement in the Cory Voorhis scandal.
The issue of open records and privately paid-for cell phones has recently become an issue in other states as well. In 2008, a student of Oklahoma State University discovered that hundreds of University officials were conducting university business on their personal cell phones, and using that as a basis to deny access to the phone records. OSU journalism professor Joey Senat said, “The notion put forth by OSU poses a serious threat to open government because it contains no limiting principle. If a record is secret because it’s on the mayor’s iPhone, then so are documents on the mayor’s own laptop even if he’s conducting the public’s business on it while seated at his office desk.”
About one year later, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmonson issued a binding opinion on the matter, saying, “People who use their personal PC’s (personal computers) or personal phones to conduct public business, there’s nothing improper about that, but the records that are generated on those instruments fall within the (Oklahoma) Open Records Act, and need to be preserved, unless they are otherwise deemed confidential, and need to be turned over upon request.”
“Maybe the Ritter Administration will one day regret the precedent they are setting when a Republican holds the Governorship, and the new Governor and their staff hide all of their activity thanks to the hard work of Mr. Ritter,” Caldara added. “But if this precedent is upheld by the Supreme Court, then the legislature may have to get involved.”