If Sen. John McCain makes Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty his running mate, the presidential candidate also will be acquiring a notably short paper trail.

Pawlenty, after more than five years as governor, has not filed any records with state archives. He has also been less willing to preserve documents than his predecessor, Jesse Ventura, who despite a reputation for being thin-skinned, saved even unflattering memos and e-mails for future public access.

Pawlenty's administration has cited a 40-year-old Minnesota Supreme Court decision to justify retaining only records of final decisions -- not the e-mails or paperwork that cast light on how decisions were made.

Under that policy, for example, many of the e-mail exchanges regarding the Interstate 35W bridge collapse could have been destroyed if they had not been ordered preserved by the attorney general in anticipation of lawsuits.

When Pawlenty replaced Ventura, he took a more limited view on what to keep, according to State Archivist Robert Horton.

"They thought [Ventura] was overly broad in the definition of records," said Horton, who urged Pawlenty's office to accept Ventura's policy.

While that decision would normally be of interest solely to Minnesotans, documents that shed light on Pawlenty's record, as well as messages to the Legislature, financial records and e-mails revealing internal debate over policies and appointments typically come in for new inspection during a presidential run.

'We don't have a thing'

While Pawlenty broke with his predecessor's policy, the records he regards as official are being preserved according to a Ventura policy, said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung. That policy, called a records retention schedule, requires documents to be kept for months or years before they are destroyed, turned over to a successor or transferred to the archives. Most of the transfers can occur at the end of a term, but some can be sent earlier.

Ventura transferred some records to archives early in his single term but most at the end. Pawlenty has not sent any records to the archives.

McClung declined to say whether Pawlenty would transfer records to archives sooner if McCain picks him as his running mate.

There is precedent for controversy arising over the handling of gubernatorial records during a run for national office.

In 2003, Democrat Howard Dean resigned as governor of Vermont to run for president and turned over many of his records to the state on the condition they remain sealed for 10 years. He told Vermont reporters, "There are future political considerations ... We didn't want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavors." Dean later said he was joking.

Horton said the situation will be "really, really interesting," if Pawlenty becomes a vice presidential candidate. "Because we're going to have lot of people coming in to investigate him, and the first place a lot of them will stop is at the archives, and we're going to say, 'We don't have a thing.'"

Discretion to destroy

Policies on preserving documents have varied. Former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich had a broad definition of official records and transferred many to archives at the end of his term. Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson transferred far fewer.

While the public can always file a Data Practices Act request to the governor's office for documents that it's still holding, that wouldn't help someone trying to recover e-mails and other documents that the staff decided were never official records and destroyed, said Don Gemberling, the lawyer who for decades headed an agency that helped issue opinions on public records requests.

Pawlenty's staff exercises considerable discretion in determining what to destroy.

"Our staff retain e-mail while they are useful and then they are deleted," wrote Pawlenty director of operations Paula Brown in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.

When the newspaper sought e-mails and other correspondence from Pawlenty Chief of Staff Matt Kramer and Deputy Chief of Staff Bob Schroeder since Aug. 1, 2007, the documents made available were largely limited to correspondence from the last two months. No correspondence about key legislative issues or budget negotiations was included, even though both Kramer and Schroeder played key roles in the talks.

The correspondence provided to the Star Tribune included official letters thanking people for gifts they provided Pawlenty from trade missions and other events, including a thank-you to the Minnesota Knitters' Guild for a pair of fingerless mittens sent to the governor's office.

In explaining Pawlenty's stance on what documents are being kept as official reports, Brown said the attorney general in 1992 reviewed the 1968 Supreme Court ruling and "recognized that government records record the ... official action only and excluded documentation related to the thought processes that may have lead to the action."

In a letter explaining the administration's handling of records not regarded as official, Brown wrote that encouraging staff to "discard paperwork and e-mails once they are no longer needed ... helps us maintain efficient use of our technology resources, control overhead costs, work more efficiently and reduce clutter."

Gemberling views the official records policy differently.

"Patently absurd," he said. "They don't want to be open."

pdoyle@startribune.com • 651-222-1210 mbrunswick@startribune.com • 651-222-1636