When Requesting Public Records, Don’t Forget Personal Email Accounts

By Colman M. Herman

With all the flap about Hillary Clinton conducting state department business using her personal email account, I wanted to see if there are any related cases in my own backyard of Massachusetts. Sure enough, I found one.

In 2013, Frank Bonet, personnel director for the city of Lawrence, asked the city for copies of all emails related to city business that were sent or received by City Councilor Marc Laplante from his personal email account. Bonet said that he suspected that Laplante was doing a number on his character in the emails.

When the city failed to respond, Bonet filed an appeal with Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees the Massachusetts Public Records Law.

“You stated that the city has no access or control of Councilor Laplante’s personal email account and thus has no records responsive to Mr. Bonet’s request,” Shawn Williams, Galvin’s supervisor of public records, wrote to Lawrence City Attorney Charles Boddy. “If a town official creates or receives an email record, and that record relates to the work of the individual in his/her official capacity, then the record is considered public and subject to disclosure, regardless of whether it was made or received on a city email account or personal email account.”

Williams ordered the city to search for the records Bonet was seeking and to turn what they find over to him or to claim one of the numerous exemptions available in the public records law.

The take home: Those seeking public records should explicitly state that their requests include searching personal email accounts if they suspect that such accounts may have been used to carry out the people’s business.

Herman is a freelance writer and reporter living in Boston.

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