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Maryland’s General Assembly will consider legislation this session intended to prohibit Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) — and future governors — from using texting apps that automatically destroy their messages.
Two lawmakers — Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Howard) — said they were moved to take action after the Washington Post reported that Hogan makes regular use of Wickr, a messaging app that can be set to delete users’ communications automatically.
According to the paper, messages that Hogan and his top staff exchange vanish 24 hours after they are sent. Lawmakers and good-government advocates said the governor’s use of Wickr raises questions about whether use of the app conflicts with Maryland public records requirements.
According to the Maryland State Archives, “the law defines public records very broadly,” and that “all public officials (are) responsible for making sure that records no longer needed are either offered to the Archives or are destroyed according to procedures that are spelled out in Maryland’s regulations.”
“Records must be maintained correctly to facilitate the transparency that the public expects of public office-holders,” the site adds.
Hogan defended his use of the app on Thursday, telling reporters, “there’s nothing inappropriate in what we do.”
“It doesn’t take the place of official government communication,” he added. “But we certainly have the ability to communicate in an informal way, in person, on the phone, and through messaging chats. I think it’s a pretty common practice and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.”
While the guidance on public records indicates that every “unit” of state government must have a record-keeping plan, Hogan’s spokesman, Michael Ricci, suggested the governor is exempt.
“As has historically been the case, there is no document retention policy for the Office of the Governor,” he said in an email.
The administration told the Post that it is not a “unit of state government” because it is the head of state government.
Stewart dismissed that stance.
“Right now they’re making this laughable argument that they don’t need a policy because the governor’s office is not a unit of government, which would not pass the smell test of any judge in America,” he said.
Lam offered a similar take: “The interpretation that the governor’s office is not a ‘unit of state government’ — I think that contention is absurd and it’s unbelievable on the face of it.”
Both lawmakers said Maryland law needs to make it clear that the governor’s office is a unit of the government.
“By changing the definition of ‘unit of government,’ they would have to create a record retention plan that’s been approved by the state archivist,” Stewart said.
The Post’s story included several messages — obtained through an unidentified source — that Hogan exchanged with top staff. The governor’s legal office told reporters the messages the Post obtained do not show him conducting public business on the app. Hogan declined to be interviewed.
In public, Hogan tends to employ a disciplined communications style that highlights successes and distances his administration from failures. The messages obtained by the Post’s source — described by Ricci as “fluid political and media, news of the day conversations” — offered a glimpse into his off-stage persona.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause, said she was surprised to learn that Hogan is using Wickr. Her organization supports a change in the law.
“I understand the desire (to communicate candidly), but you are a public official,” she said. “Our first reaction was honestly shock. And then we were like, ‘what are you trying to hide?’ … Especially when the governor has made clear that his priority is transparency. It’s just really concerning.”
Antoine said the state’s Public Information Act already exempts certain confidential communications.
Stewart suggested that Hogan was drawn to Wickr because it gives him the ability to communicate candidly about “scandals” such as the South Korean test kit controversy, the indictment of his former chief of staff Roy McGrath, and the glitches with the unemployment assistance program — without his words ending up in the state archives or news accounts.
“When you tick off the number of scandals that have roiled the administration since the onset of the pandemic… there are obviously many different topics that the governor and his inner circle have had to discuss that are very sensitive,” Stewart said. “It’s clear that the governor wanted to provide a fail-safe so that his discussion of these really embarrassing topics would never come to light. And unfortunately for the public, it looks like he might have succeeded.”
Last year, a former top state official was arrested for posting child pornography to Wickr and another messaging service, Kik, from his home and state government buildings.
Mathew Palmer was sentenced last year to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to a federal child pornography charge. Palmer served as Hogan’s deputy legislative officer before becoming chief operating officer at the state Department of Commerce.
Investigators obtained their guilty plea after obtaining thousands of illicit images from Wickr and Kik accounts that were registered in Palmer’s name.
The Hogan administration said Palmer was never a user on the account used by the governor. He resigned abruptly from his commerce department post in August 2020.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include additional detail about Mathew Palmer’s Wickr use.