Update, Aug. 12, 9:40 a.m.: Sunalei Stewart, the chief of staff in the State Auditor’s Office, said Keller has stopped using the Gmail account for public business. “Auditor Keller is no longer using the Gmail account going forward or any other Gmail account to conduct official business,” he told me. “We think we complied with the law. We understand the perception, and it’s not being done moving forward.”
COMMENTARY: State Auditor Tim Keller should know better.
He has an MBA from Harvard. His background is as an investment banker, manager, and financial adviser. He should realize the importance of systems that provide accountability. He should seek to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. He should understand the need to follow best practices that support those goals.
And yet, the auditor, who is tasked with watchdogging local and state government agencies in New Mexico, has been using a nongovernmental, Gmail account to do some of that work.
It’s legal. But it’s not a best practice from an ethics and transparency standpoint. You can delete emails you don’t want the public seeing if you’re using a private account. We have no way of knowing.
With a governmental account, there are stronger checks in place to ensure you’re not illegally deleting emails the public has a right to see.
So using a private account – especially when you also have a government email account, as Keller does – creates the appearance that you are trying to hide something.
It certainly created that appearance when Gov. Susana Martinez was caught using private email early in her tenure. Leaked messages showed Martinez staffers discussing a bid process for a casino and racetrack lease with a Republican insider who represented the winning bidder, the Downs at Albuquerque.
The situation revealed a possible conflict of interest and smacked of impropriety.
When the offending official was his political enemy, Keller, a Democrat, understood the problem. He’s been one of Martinez’s most vocal critics as it relates to the Downs deal.
“She says she’s tough on corruption, and then she trades a hunting trip and a lot of campaign donations for a casino license,” he told Democrats at their state convention in 2013.
(The first gentleman’s hunting trip to Louisiana was rumored to be tied to the Downs deal. That has not been proven, nor has strong evidence surfaced to support the rumor. People tied to the Downs gave at least $70,000 to Martinez’s 2010 campaign but also gave $50,000 to her opponent.)
Keller has an explanation for why it’s OK that he does something he criticized Martinez for doing: He’s well-intentioned. He released messages from the Gmail account in response to a records request from the state GOP.
“The Governor’s Office used private email accounts because they were attempting to conduct official business ‘off the radar,’” newspapers quoted Keller’s Deputy Chief of Staff Justine Freeman as saying. “With the Auditor Gmail account, we always considered it official and public.”
That argument is akin to saying, “Martinez abused her power, so it was wrong. Keller is trustworthy, so it’s OK.”
“Really. You can trust Tim Keller. Nothing to see here. Move along.”
I don’t trust either of them. It’s my job to be skeptical of government officials.
True, Keller released some Gmail messages. But we have no way of knowing if he also illegally deleted some.
Given that he believes Martinez was hiding emails from the public, it’s stunning that Keller is essentially telling us to trust him instead of implementing a best practice. He should know better.
Keller apparently created the Gmail account when he was elected in November. He planned to use it before he took office and got a government email account. That’s fine. He should have stopped using it when he took office on Jan. 1.
Keller’s continued use of the Gmail account has me questioning his readiness for the nuanced and technical work New Mexicans elected him to do.