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Former Corbett aide significantly cut email keeping rule

| Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, 5:18 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Former Acting Attorney General William H. Ryan Jr., a top aide to Tom Corbett when the governor was attorney general, changed the period for retaining the office's emails from five years to six months, according to a document released on Friday by Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

The revelation was disclosed as Kane reviews whether Corbett's investigation of serial predator Jerry Sandusky was slowed for political purposes. It took almost three years until Sandusky's arrest in November 2011 — 11 months after Corbett became governor.

“I can assure you it had nothing to do with protecting anybody,” Ryan said of his decision in February 2011 to shorten the email retention, one month after Corbett became governor. The idea that he changed the policy to squelch Sandusky-related emails is “ludicrous,” he said. “We had an investigation going.”

Asked whether Corbett suggested that he change the policy, Ryan said, “No.” He said he acted on the recommendation of an information technology officer whom he did not name.

Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said the governor “would have had no say on any actions of the Office of Attorney General, an independent agency,” once Ryan was in charge.

Corbett, a Shaler Republican, is seeking re-election.

Ryan was interim attorney general until Corbett appointed Linda Kelly to be the top prosecutor from May 2011 to mid-January 2013, when Kane took office.

Ryan became Corbett's appointee to chair the Pennsylvania Gaming Control board, with a $150,000 salary, in August 2011.

Kane, a Clarks Summit Democrat, last week said her office is reconstructing emails that were deleted because of a previous email retention policy. She said that's why her review, conducted by a law school professor she hired as a deputy attorney general for the task, has taken one year.

The Tribune-Review requested the email retention policies of Kane and prior attorneys general. Her policy is to keep emails for two years, her office said.

Ryan said the only thing political about the matter is Kane. The Sandusky investigation “has been a political matter, as far as the current attorney general is concerned.”

What really matters is that jurors in 2012 convicted Sandusky, a former Penn State University assistant football coach, of 45 counts of molesting boys, Ryan said.

“That gets lost,” said Ryan.

Kane is fulfilling a campaign promise to investigate how the office handled the Sandusky case. Her office declined to comment.

“Six months, I got to tell you, blows my mind,” Eric Epstein, a founder of the government reform group Rock the Capital, said of Ryan's policy change.

Ryan said five years is far too long to keep emails, and storage was expensive for the agency.

A copy of the policy change, which the Trib obtained independently, states: “Once messages reach the six-month threshold they will be automatically and permanently deleted from the (OAG) Office of Attorney General storage environment.”

University of Pittsburgh Law School professor John Burkoff warned against reading too much into it.

“It tells me nothing,” said Burkoff. “From my point of view, six months is much too short, although I recognize that reasonable people can certainly differ about that. But the issue here, apparently, is not what is an appropriate time period for record retention, but rather, is it possible to resurrect records after their supposed destruction?”

J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University, said: “Six months to five years is somewhat interesting.” He agreed with Burkoff that no one should draw any conclusions but said on its face, the decision “does raise suspicions.”

“How would Tom Corbett have felt if Bill DeWeese had done that, based on a House Democrat policy to keep email for six months?” Epstein said.

Corbett, as attorney general, investigated the former Democratic House speaker. DeWeese of Waynesburg was convicted in 2012 of using tax money for campaigns.

Public perception about email deletion is important for public officials to keep in mind, especially in high-profile cases, said Terry Mutchler, director of the Office of Open Records. Emails vary widely in importance, she said.

An innocuous email — such as one stating “Let's have lunch” — should have a much shorter lifespan than one dealing with government policy, she said.

“For certain records, six months wouldn't pass the gut check,” Mutchler said.

The Office of Attorney General sets its policies and is not governed by the Office of Administration, which oversees record retention policies of most state agencies, Pagni said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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