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Report: Colorado health agency deleted emails on pandemic

November 11, 2020 GMT

DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has routinely deleted emails sent and received by officials responding to the coronavirus pandemic even though the state archives has asked that they be saved, a newspaper has found.

The Denver Post reported that it discovered that emails sent and received by state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy were deleted after the newspaper requested some documents that are considered public records.

The department said it would provide some records, including emails. But it said emails “from May would have already been auto-deleted unless otherwise preserved, or they were previously deleted by Dr. Herlihy as part of a normal business process,” said Monica Wilkerson, the department’s records and legal services liaison.

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As of last year, the department deleted most employee emails after 90 days. The policy mirrors similar practices by the state government, including the governor’s office.

Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Executive Director Jeff Roberts said it is important to keep records so that journalists can report on a crisis impacting the health and safety of the state’s residents.

“I’m disappointed because we asked for this,” Roberts said. “Just because they may not think the messages are important to keep, those are government records and they are the public’s records.”

State officials have argued they are following procedure and the law.

“To be clear, we haven’t changed our record-retention policy during the pandemic; we are, of course, preserving what the law requires us to preserve,” said Ann Hause, director of the agency’s office of legal and regulatory compliance.

The Colorado State Archives posted a notice online in June asking various agencies to “keep all records related to COVID-19.”

The state Department of Public Health and Environment said it is following the state archives’ guidelines.

“The State Archives Office recommends we save correspondence showing significant new policies or work practices in place during the pandemic,” the department said. “Correspondence includes letters, memos and emails.”

The Colorado State Archives did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday.

More than 60 news organizations, including The Post, sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis in April asking for transparency in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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“These primary records will become particularly important in the future, as journalists and social science researchers attempt to reconstruct this chaotic period to determine what we can learn from the response,” the letter read.

Polis’ Press Secretary Conor Cahill said in response that Polis “believes in transparency in government,” and that his office saves the final versions of contracts, orders, press releases and other documents to retain.

The Post’s discovery follows a report by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition that found state agencies, cities and other government entities have charged large amounts of money to retrieve requested public records.