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Secrecy Rules

James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s open government reporter, examines government secrecy in Minnesota and beyond.

Governor to lawmakers: Kill transparency measures

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, presided over a House committee meeting earlier this year. (photo by Elizabeth Flores)

With five weeks left in the Legislative session, two bills sought by transparency advocates have run into trouble with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. The first measure would stop the widespread destruction of emails and other electronic records by requiring state and local agencies to keep their emails for three years. The second one would make public the names of government employees who access databases of private information.

An April 13 letter by Dayton's commissioners to GOP legislative leaders specified a number of objectionable policy measures. One section starts this way: "This administration remains dedicated to ensuring transparency in State Government, however the following proposed policy changes are concerning..."

The email retention bill "will vastly expand unnecessary bureaucratic requirements and add significant cost to every records transaction within the state," the commissioners wrote, and they gave examples, including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency having to keep an additional 6 million emails.

Lawmakers introduced the "electronic access" change to correct what some say was a misinterpretation of a law originally passed to protect the privacy of individual users of government websites. The state has cited the statute in its refusal to release the names of employees who snooped in Minnesotans' driver's license records.

The Dayton Administration said changing that law could have all sorts of terrible consequences: criminals could sabotage investigations by making data requests; it could reveal the identities of undercover officers, and even expose public employees to harassment.

"There's a clear misunderstanding of current law," Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover and chair of the House committee that deals with data practices, said this week. A three-year retention policy for electronic records is consistent with what's already required for paper records, she said. As far as the woes laid out by changing "electronic access' data, investigative data is already non-public, as are the names of undercover officers.

Rich Neumeister, an open government and privacy advocate, said the current law goes well beyond driver's license snooping. Parents can't find out who's looking at their children's educational records, for example, he said. "If you don't know who is accessing your electronic file, and decisions are made about you, you have no ability to correct people who may have inaccurate information, or who may even be using that information in other kinds of data."

Meanwhile, Dayton is trying to keep the Legislature from slashing the budget of its tiny agency that interprets the state's public records and open meetings laws. Proposed cuts to the Department of Administration's general fund budget could force it to downsize by 25 percent the four-employee Information Policy Analysis Division "despite Minnesotans requesting more help from those experts," the agency wrote.

No Minnesota-bound travelers detained by Trump's order, feds say

Volunteer lawyers greet a traveler at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in February (Star Tribune photo by David Joles)

In February I wrote about my effort to find out whether any Minnesota-bound travelers were detained as a result of President Trump's travel ban. That information has been hard to come by, despite widespread public interest, and even a visit to the Customs and Border Protection office by an irritated U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Mankato (who's now running for governor). Walz said at the time that his office confirmed no travelers were detained at MSP, but I put in a Freedom of Information Act request to see the records.

Two days after my column was published, CBP denied my request, saying there were records, but releasing them would violate the privacy of individuals involved and jeopardize law enforcement proceedings. I appealed that denial, and got my answer Friday. This time, CBP actually checked. "We reached out to the Ports in Minnesota and were advised that there were no responsive records to your request." The FOIA Division was incorrect, the agency said.

Still, their response holds out the possibility that a traveler bound for Minnesota was detained at some other port of entry. Perhaps the coordinated FOIA lawsuits filed by the ACLU earlier this week will answer that question.