Maryland lawmakers want to make sure the quickly deleted text messages used by Gov. Larry Hogan and his staff are retained as public records.
The Republican governor and his team have used the messaging app Wickr, which allows users to automatically delete messages, potentially skirting state open records laws. That raised concern among lawmakers and good-government advocates that public business was being conducted in a way that’s not transparent.
A sampling of the messages, reviewed by The Baltimore Sun, showed Hogan’s team had chat rooms within the Wickr app with names like “Inner Sanctum,” “Front Office” and “Executive Team.” The governor and his senior aides discussed issues including news coverage and how much federal aid for infrastructure might be coming to Maryland.
The governor’s lawyers provided copies of the messages in response to requests under the Maryland Public Information Act, but maintained that they were not required to under state law. The Hogan administration’s use of Wickr was reported by The Washington Post in December.
In response, Democratic lawmakers are pushing to revise Maryland’s public records laws to more clearly include such messages — an effort that the governor’s spokesman alleges is politically motivated.
The legislation would update the definition of a public record to include “any written, electronic, audio or video communication” involving the transaction of public business made or received by a state employee or a public official.
The law also would be updated to clarify that the Office of the Governor is a “unit of government” that is required to retain and archive certain records. The designation would refute an argument made by Hogan’s team that the governor is the head of government but not a unit of government.
“Marylanders have a right to know how decisions were made by the officials that they voted for and that they financed with their tax dollars,” said Del. Vaughn Stewart, a Montgomery County Democrat and a lead sponsor of the bill, known as the “Transparency in Public Records Act.”
Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing Howard and Baltimore counties, is taking the lead in the Senate.
Stewart did not mention Hogan’s use of Wickr as he presented the bill in a public hearing Tuesday, primarily describing the legislation as “mostly a clarifying bill” that recognizes changing technology and removes ambiguity in the law.
Others, however, made the link clear.
Morgan Drayton, policy engagement manager for Common Cause Maryland, said the governor’s use of Wickr with its automatic deletion of messages is “making it impossible to access what could be considered public records.”
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With the proliferation of apps like Wickr, Snapchat and WhatsApp that feature disappearing messages, “there’s no telling whether this is happening with other public officials or state employees,” Drayton said.
The bill also drew support from the League of Women Voters and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which represents the interests of newspaper and online journalists, including Baltimore Sun Media. No one spoke against the bill during a House Health and Government Operations Committee hearing that lasted just eight minutes.
Mike Ricci, the governor’s spokesman, said in a statement that lawmakers should be the ones working on being more transparent about their actions.
“While our office releases records on a regular basis to the media and the public, legislators largely operate in secret — redistricting being a prominent recent example, where they stonewalled basic requests for information,” Ricci said in a statement. “The only thing ‘transparent’ about the bill is how blatantly partisan and hypocritical it is.”
When asked in January by The Baltimore Sun about the use of the Wickr app, Hogan responded: “I really don’t have much to say about that. I mean, it’s not really much of a big deal ... There’s nothing inappropriate with what we do. It’s not really — it doesn’t take the place of official government communications, but we certainly have the ability to communicate in an informal way in person, on the phone and through messaging chats. I think it’s a pretty common practice and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.”
The bill, if passed, would take effect July 1, so it would end up covering the last half of Hogan’s final year in office. The governor is completing his second term and is barred by term limits from running again in 2022. Hogan is weighing his political future, having ruled out a run for the U.S. Senate but still considering a run for president in 2024.