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Speaker vows to retrieve scores of deleted e-mails

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 16, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - House Speaker Johnnie Byrd on Saturday tried to defuse a controversy over the mass deletion of e-mails by an aide by saying he would take "whatever steps necessary" to retrieve the lost messages.

"I support transparency in our state government," Byrd said in a statement. "I feel we owe it to the citizens of Florida, however, to go further in trying to retrieve the deleted e-mails in question."

Byrd's chief of staff, P.K. Jameson, has said she routinely deleted hundreds of e-mails after the legislative session ended April 30.

Some of those e-mails were public record under Florida law. But Jameson said she deleted them only after forwarding them to others, realizing that others received the same message or concluding that they were unimportant, "transitory" messages with no legal or administrative significance.

Jameson described many of the messages as " "please hear this bill' kind of stuff, and after session, those are of no value."

Florida's broad public records laws include official business e-mail. But the House's rules, which trump state law, say e-mails must have "vital, permanent or archival value' to warrant retention. Jameson's actions have brought criticism from the First Amendment Foundation, an open government advocacy group; the incoming House speaker, Rep. Allan Bense; and a state prosecutor, Tallahassee-area State Attorney Willie Meggs, who asked Attorney General Charlie Crist to intervene.

Byrd's statement Saturday came a day after Crist said he was looking into the matter.

Byrd is a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate and Crist, the state's chief legal officer, is campaign chairman for another candidate, former U.S. housing Secretary Mel Martinez.

The e-mail erasures came to light when the St. Petersburg Times requested e-mails received by Byrd and Jameson on the final two days of the session, April 29 and 30. On those two days, most major legislation still hung in the balance, and lobbyists, some of them carrying hand-held communications devices capable of sending e-mail, were desperate to get their bills and amendments heard.

Byrd, in consultation with Jameson, controlled the House bill calendar.

The Times requested the e-mails on May 4. A few days later, the House provided a computer disk with more than 1,000 e-mails sent to Byrd and a Post-it note from Byrd's spokesman, Ton Denham, which read: "P.K.'s old e-mails were deleted from the system on 5-1-04."

The House computer system uses Microsoft software that automatically stores individual users' e-mails on a separate hard drive. But even though Jameson's e-mails exist, Byrd's spokesman and an attorney for the House said earlier they would not excavate the electronic messages.

Byrd said Jameson "followed House rules" regarding e-mail, by deleting "excess" messages from her inbox daily as the legislative session progressed. In his statement, he also said he plans to re-examine how the House deals with future requests for deleted e-mails and whether they can or should be retained on computer servers for public inspection.

[Last modified May 16, 2004, 01:00:38]


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