by Nicole Galloway, CPA
Missouri State Auditor
A common magic trick is to make something disappear right in front of the audience. We know it’s just an illusion, but a good magician makes the act entertaining.
Some politicians in Jefferson City have perfected a far less amusing trick – making public records on their electronic devices disappear through self-deleting applications. Faster than you can say “David Copperfield,” the record of that public business is permanently gone.
Public business conducted in secret prevents taxpayers from holding government accountable. And as we’ve seen from the ongoing lawsuit about the use of the Confide app by former Governor Greitens, such secrecy also can cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills.
As State Auditor, I work to ensure the proper use of public funds and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Missouri government. I believe the public’s business should be done in the open, and my audits point out when a government entity isn’t following the Sunshine Law.
Let’s be clear: from the Governor’s office to the village board of aldermen, self-deleting apps have no place in government.
I recently sent a letter to local and county governments across Missouri, encouraging them to follow the guidelines adopted last May by the State Records Commission and prohibit the use of applications that automatically destroy or delete public business communications. As a member of the records commission, I was joined by the Secretary of State and the Attorney General in a bipartisan vote approving the guidelines and supporting greater transparency.
My letter has generated a positive response from local officials looking for clear direction on these apps. For example, the county council in St. Louis County has begun work to draft an ordinance banning self-destructing programs.
Now it’s time for state lawmakers to act. The guidelines set out by the State Records Commission are the first time Missouri governments have had clear direction on self-deleting applications. But unlike the Sunshine Law, the guidelines are not legally enforceable.
Last month, I formally asked the five other statewide officials – the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State and Treasurer – to join me in encouraging the legislature to strengthen the Sunshine Law by banning the use of self-deleting apps for public business. Legislators return to Jefferson City in January, and this should be one of their priorities.
A bill prohibiting the use of self-destructing messaging technology passed the House in the last legislative session, but the measure died in the Senate. Transparency in government is a non-partisan issue. The Sunshine Law needs to keep up with changing technology, so that public officials can’t hide the public’s business.
Missourians expect – and deserve – government to be honest when conducting public business. Banning self-destructing messaging by public officials is another step to ensuring transparency, and is the best antidote to any perceived or actual government impropriety. It is not only a best practice, it is just good common sense.