A top aide to New Jersey governor Chris Christie is the latest in a string of government staffers to use personal email accounts and other digital services that sidestep public records laws — regulations designed to keep government business transparent.
In this instance, emails from the Yahoo Mail account of Bridget Anne Kelly — Christie's former deputy chief of staff who was fired by the governor last week — indicate a correspondence related to the controversial closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge that connects Manhattan to Fort Lee, New Jersey. The circumstances surrounding those closures have since erupted into a controversy, dubbed "Bridgegate," with Christie denying that he was involved in any ploy devised by his staff to close the lanes as part of a political vendetta.
Using her Yahoo account rather than her professional one
When a local newspaper filed a request for emails related to the issue, Christie's office replied with a statement that no such emails existed in its records. But as the Associated Press reports, a subpoena now reveals that Kelly had been using her Yahoo account rather than her professional one to orchestrate the lane closures. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," reads one email sent by Kelly to a Christie-appointed official involved in closing the bridge lanes. Fort Lee's mayor, Mark Sokolich, was allegedly targeted for the traffic ploy because he didn't endorse Christie's reelection campaign last year.
Public records laws meet personal email accounts
The incident highlights the sluggish pace with which public records laws, which vary by state, have kept up with new means of communication. Plenty of ambiguity currently surrounds how government officials and staffers can use personal email accounts and text messaging when conducting official business, and whether or not such correspondences need to be disclosed to the public. Last year, the AP reported that federal officials with several agencies — including the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Labor Department — were using personal email addresses in professional contexts. At the time, trying to obtain copies of such correspondences under the Freedom of Information Act often proved exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.