INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly stonewalled media requests to view public records when he was Indiana’s governor, including emails about state business distributed from a private AOL account that was hacked last year.
Revelations Pence used the account to discuss homeland security and other official matters, first reported Thursday by the Indianapolis Star, are just the latest in a series of transparency battles involving the Republican’s tenure as governor.
The Star obtained the AOL emails through an open records request after new Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb agreed to release 29 pages from his predecessor’s AOL account. The Associated Press filed a similar records request last July seeking the emails and followed up with a complaint against the governor’s office in January when there was no response.
Earlier this year, lawyers for Pence argued unsuccessfully in a civil case that Indiana courts had no authority to force him to comply with public records law. His administration also has repeatedly delayed or denied the release of records that could shed light on his tenure as governor.
Pence’s efforts stand in stark contrast to the image he had previously sought to cultivate, presenting himself as a champion of a free press and the First Amendment.
The hacking of Pence’s private emails also raises questions of hypocrisy for some of his attacks against Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. He argued Clinton’s use of a private server when she was secretary of state could have jeopardized national security if the emails got into the wrong hands.
“There’s no comparison whatsoever between Hillary Clinton’s practice of having a private servers, mishandling classified information, destroying emails when they were requested by the Congress and by officials,” Pence said Friday. “We have fully complied with all of Indiana’s laws. We had outside counsel review all of my private email records to identify any emails that ever referenced or mentioned state business-related activities. As Indiana laws required we transferred all of those to the state of Indiana subject to the public access laws.”
Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, have used their private accounts – mpence1314(at)aol.com and kspence1314(at)aol.com – to conduct official business dating back to at least 2013, according to separate records obtained by the AP.
Richard Painter, former President George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer, said even if Pence wasn’t handling state secrets like Clinton, his use of an AOL account still jeopardizes national security because hacked information could be used as leverage.
“The Russians aren’t Democrats or Republicans,” Painter said. “They would love to find anything they can get on Pence or (President Donald) Trump.”
Pence’s AOL account was subjected to a phishing scheme last spring, before Trump chose him to join the GOP presidential ticket. Pence’s contacts were sent an email falsely claiming that the governor and his wife were stranded in the Philippines and needed money.
“Those are the very low-level hackers,” Painter said. “If that kind of joker can get in, there are Russian hackers that are a lot higher up the food chain.”
The governor moved to a different AOL account with additional security measures, Pence spokesman Marc Lotter said, but has since stopped using the new personal account since he was sworn-in as vice president.
The 29 pages of Pence’s AOL emails, which were released to the AP on Friday, show Pence was given FBI updates on arrests made in a terrorism case. They include details about Pence’s attempts to bar Syrian Refugees from resettling in Indiana, efforts that were ultimately blocked by a federal judge.
In one email, former Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks told her boss “good job” for conducting himself well in a local TV news story.
Holcomb declined to release an unspecified number of additional emails, which he said are confidential.
Public officials are not barred from using personal email accounts under Indiana law, but the law is interpreted to mean that any official business conducted on private email must be retained to comply with public record laws.
The state requires all records pertaining to state business to be retained and available for public information requests. Emails involving state email accounts are captured on the state’s servers, but any emails that Pence may have sent from his AOL account to another private account would need to be retained.
At the end of his term, Pence hired the Indianapolis law firm of Barnes & Thornburg to conduct a review of all of his communications and that review is still ongoing, Lotter said. Any correspondence between Pence’s AOL account and any aides using a state email account would have been automatically archived, he said.
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