Public officials can’t use private phones or social media messages to get around public records laws, according to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
In an opinion released this afternoon, Brnovich said public officials have a duty to preserve records that pertain to public business, even if they’re on private cell phones.
The opinion was requested by Democratic Sen. Steve Farley in December 2015 after a Capitol Times investigation found shoddy compliance with records requests for text and social media messages.
In that investigation, Arizona Senate Republicans refused to turn over any text messages, arguing that because elected officials had used private phones, the messages weren’t public records.
But case law does not back up that claim. The Arizona Supreme Court has decided that any documents, regardless of medium, are public records if they have a “substantial nexus” to government business.
Brnovich said communications on officials’ private devices aren’t inherently public records.
But, he said, “public officials have an affirmative duty to reasonably account for official activity,” regardless of whether their device or account is privately or publicly owned.
“In other words, public officials cannot use private devices and accounts for the purpose of concealing official conduct,” Brnovich wrote.
Still, Brnovich wrote, not all communications on government employees’ private devices or accounts are public records. If agencies had to maintain all records on private devices, as they must with certain records on state-owned devices, it would be “impossible” for agencies to manage.
Public employees also have privacy rights, he said, and classifying messages on private devices or accounts as public records could expose all of a person’s information on those accounts to a government agency as part of the record-keeping process.
But, Brnovich said, public bodies and officials have “independent obligations to record their work and otherwise maintain records.”
If a public official uses private electronic devices or social media accounts to conduct official business, it’s the duty of that official to record the activity to comply with public records statutes, Brnovich said.
Using a private device could “implicate the public official’s duty to provide a reasonable account of official conduct,” he added.
Dan Barr, a First Amendment attorney with Perkins Coie in Phoenix, said the opinion effectively confirms what’s already in the law. No one was arguing messages on private devices on private matters were public records, he said. Instead, it’s a “content-based” test – meaning if a message has to do with public business, it’s a public record, regardless of where it is located, he said.
And that’s Brnovich’s broad conclusion, though the opinion delves into whether all records on a private device would be a public record. Barr characterized the opinion as “poorly edited” and noted that an Attorney General opinion does not set a precedent or change any laws.
“What took them so long to issue this opinion? It took them two years to do this?” Barr questioned.